Pippi: The Strongest Girl in the World - and pirates!
by Drew Rowsome- Photographs by Lyon Smith and Hannah Price
The summer is ending, there is a distinct chill in the air, and my mind is filled with all the fun fair-weather things I had planned to do when the season stretched out before me. But no time for regrets and when the opportunity to set sail presents itself, I climb aboard a pirate ship and prepare for a swashbuckling adventure. After the success of Flooded, Pirate Life has teamed up with Fourth Gorgon Theatre for another theatrical nautical voyage: Pippi: The Strongest Girl in the World.
Pirate Life has previously concentrated on children's shows and Pippi floats somewhere in a space between a solution to "what will we do with the kids while they're out of school" and a razzle dazzle musical. Fortunately it is charming and energetic enough to accomplish both. As the stories of Pippi Longstocking, on which Pippi: The Strongest Girl in the World appears to be at least loosely based, are not part of my childhood cultural lexicon, and I have no particular fondness for children in general, the off-off-Broadway all the way to the beach aspect is what attracted me.
The cast is fine-voiced, talented and utterly committed which is a necessity as the distractions are many. The wind whisks away money notes, planes overhead break the spell, a pirate rap number is disrupted by the dance music blaring from a party boat, and noisy seagulls squawk off-key harmonies. But a passing sailing ship is integrated into the plot and revenge is had on the party boat when - SPOILER ALERT! - we are allowed to operate the water cannons in a simple but exhilarating bit of interactive entertainment.
At that point I was overjoyed to have the children who made up about a third of the audience on board, their excitement and bloodlust was infectious. However when Pippi launched into a heartfelt ballad of female empowerment and one of the restless brats insisted on upstaging, I would have gleefully helped Pippi, or the pirates, pitch the miscreant overboard. That impulse came about because the music and lyrics by Landon Doak is catchy and more sophisticated than it needed to be. He is as influenced by Sondheim as by Jay-Z, call it the Lin-Manuel Miranda effect.
Though resolutely G-rated, Pippi abounds with wordplay and ideas as exuberant as the titular character. There some clever zingers, much Monty Python-esque banter, and a lot of pirate puns and gags of which only some of which sink. The words, music and lyrics are all in service of a vaguely feminist, believe in yourself, and the power of imagination theme, that makes up for the fact that - despite a shipwreck, much death and destruction in backstory, and a pitched battle for Pippi's affections between the pirates and the landlubbers - there is not a lot of actual plot to drive the action.
The cast has filled in all the holes, these characters all have relationships and motivations and telling details that keep them from being caricatures or devices. Annie Tuma as Pippi, has to sing out her entire back story - which contains many crucial plot points - but is so effortlessly charming that she commands our attention with the riveting grace of a Broadway diva. A diva who is forced to have her back facing at least half the audience most of the time and is competing with those damn seagulls to be heard.
The boat rolls with the waves in an effect that is lulling and hypnotic, but which should play havoc with Reanne Spitzer's choreography. Fortunately the sultry and competitive pirate wenches Lena Maripuu and Kelsey Tuma are sure-footed, quick with a quip and can sell the most ridiculous of premises. I personally prefer my pirates to be a little more menacing but then I would also have loved to have been attacked by a sea monster or giant shark and that was not only not in the budget but would have presumably terrified the deckrats on board.
Tymika Mckenzie-Clunis is Annika, Pippa's best friend and a naive landlubber who longs for adventure, but not too much adventure. It is her blossoming into her version of "The Strongest Girl in the World" that is Pippa's main theme (by extension we all can be "The Strongest Girl in the World" if we just believe in ourselves and use our imaginations) and Mckenzie-Clunis has the pipes and wide eyes to go from cute to "I'm Everywoman," or at least "I'm Everygirl."
The sub-theme is the more fascinating one. Our captain is a no-nonsense seasoned sailor who, the night I set sail, was played with Popeye - not Olive Oyl - panache by powerhouse Kit Boulter. Is there anything Boulter can't do? Tearing up the stage in Hedwig and Songs and Screams and now blithely piloting a pirate ship laden with trusting souls, probably some non-swimmers . . . Gender roles and expectations upended and now non-swimming with the fishes. Much of the musical accompaniment is provided by Lucas Penner as Tommy, Annika's foil. He struggles, smiling gamely and constantly, to match the macho bravado of the pirates but he still prefers pancakes to raw fish.
But it is the bumbling Melker, ridiculed by the other pirates for his lack of intellect and derring-do who slides a shiv into the last remnants of the patriarchy. Melker is played Mike Ricci who would be the matinee idol leading man in any more traditional outing. He is great at engaging the kids, trading bluster and giving them intimidating and nefarious pirate names, but he is also very fond of his hair brush as the sea breeze is murder on a man's coif. Preparing for a pretend coffee party, Pippa opens a hatch and pulls out an ensemble left behind from when Gypsy Rose Lee worked the deck or walked the plank. As Tuma/Pippa carresses the feathered tiara and flings the feathered cape around her shoulders, Ricci's eyes widen with delight, surprise, fascination and a sheer sexual hunger. It is a magical moment as transformative scanties are transformed into plunderable pirate treasure.
As the evening draws to a close - the end aside from one big farewell finale number that features an accordion - Melker steps forward and, finally shedding his inarticulate ways and letting his locks flow with the breeze, bids farewell to Pippa and her friends. And particularly to Tommy. It is a delicious little speech and Ricci plays it subtly so it is blatantly emotionally obvious but not obvious enough to frighten the kids' parents. Thank goodness that the little girls, and the little boys, always understand.
We survive the shipwreck, the coffee party and the trauma of Pippa's life choices, but before we head ashore and back to our mundane world where the pirates are more cloaked and cunning and dangerous, we shout along, "Happy journeys Pippa, and thanks for the visit."