Stage Door Review

The Adventures of Pinocchio

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

✭✭

music & lyrics by Neil Bartram, book by Brian Hill, directed by Sheila McCarthy

Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto

November 14, 2019-January 5, 2020

Blue Fairy: “With every step you’ll see there’s so much more to know”

Young People’s Theatre is giving the belated Canadian premiere of The Adventures of Pinocchio from 2011 written by Canadians Neil Bartram and Brian Hill. The two are best known for the two-person musical The Story of My Life that premiered at Canadian Stage in 2006. Unlike the ambiguity that surrounds the two main characters in the earlier musical, Bartram and Hill have geared Pinocchio for children and emphasize a clear message that the episodes of the story illustrate. Director Sheila McCarthy heads an inspired design team who find innumerable clever solutions to such challenges as Pinocchio’s growing nose and depicting a whale on stage. The whole is imbued with gentleness and warmth and the performances are so engaging that the auditorium of schoolchildren I saw the show with were absolutely silent with attention.

Hill’s book follows the general outline of the original novel Le avventure di Pinocchio (1883) by Carlo Collodi and not the famous Disney animated film of 1940. The prime difference between the musical and the novel is that Hill makes Geppetto a wood-carver and not a puppeteer. Hill’s Geppetto thus deliberately carves the enchanted block of wood he has found to be a boy, not a puppet. Because of that we miss the wonderful scenes found in other adaptions of the story such as Geppetto’s wonder at a talking puppet and Geppetto teaching Pinocchio to walk and act like a real boy, gifts that Pinocchio immediately misuses.

Hill eliminates a large number of secondary characters from the novel, most notably the wise, talking cricket who becomes Jiminy Cricket in the film. All the more distressing aspects of the original story are also missing such as Pinocchio’s accidentally burning off his feet, his being hanged by the Fox and the Cat, his being caught by an ogre called the Green Fisherman, his being fully transformed into a donkey and sold to a circus and his later encounter with the Fox and the Cat who are now blind. Hill also rearranges incidents so that Pinocchio goes off to the Terra di Ragazzi (Land of Boys) before Geppetto tries to find him at sea rather after.

Hill’s adaptation makes for a very snappy 70-minute-long show. The original novel implies that Pinocchio’s various mistakes in life are being watched over by the Blue Fairy and her various animal agents even though he doesn’t actually meet her until he is cheated by the Fox and Cat. Hill, however, has the Blue Fairy serve as the narrator of the story, advise Pinocchio shortly after Geppetto has carved him and intercede at several important moments on his journey. Thus, unlike the more negative view of the world of the novel, in the musical we feel that Pinocchio may make the wrong decisions but is never in any real danger.

Neil Bartram’s music uses the irregular rhythms popular in Sondheim and avoids nearly all commonplace rhymes in his lyrics. I do wish he had not used the same introductory seven-note piano sequence, so memorable from the song “One” in A Chorus Line (1975), as the theme for the Fox and Cat’s big number “Money Grows On Trees”. I also wish that he could have made the exciting song celebrating the Terra di Ragazzi sound less like “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). These may be sly echoes of the other works, but their intent is unclear to me and likely even less clear to a five-year-old.

Sheila McCarthy has staged the musical with abundant wit and imagination. Designer Joanna Yu’s set consists of five two-storey towers that look like narrow houses and represent the town where Geppetto lives. The three-person band is placed in two of the top storeys, one functions as the Puppet Master’s perch and another serves as an aerial lookout for the Blue Fairy. All that’s needed to define Geppetto’s house is a free-standing door and Louise Guinand’s lighting. Long strips of rustling blue cloth represent the sea.

Yu has designed a wood-grained mask for Pinocchio, and clever, appropriate masks for the Cat and the Fox and for the Puppet Master’s two puppets, as named by Hill, Mary and Annette. Yu gives Pinocchio removable wood-grained leg coverings and arm coverings so that he can be transformed into a real boy right before our eyes.

Among the ingenious staging ideas are the log that Geppetto carves on his table. When Geppetto chips off a piece of wood, a leg or arm is released. When he is nearly done, Pinocchio appears whole from under the table. To create the coach for the Driver to take boys to the Terra di Ragazzi, steps are pulled out from under one of the houses, the boys are seated and umbrellas are twirled as the wheels. To solve the problem of having Pinocchio’s nose grow when he lies, McCarthy and Yu simply have the Blue Fairy appear with a basket of noses and snap ever larger ones onto Pinocchio’s nose the worse his lies become. Best of all is the whale-like Terrible Dogfish composed of one performer as the head, one as the tail, and four others holding shield-shaped pieces in formation as the creature’s body. Who needs projections or elaborate machines when you can appeal to a child’s imagination?

As Pinocchio, Connor Lucas proves to be a triple-threat performer. He’s a fine singer. He’s an excellent actor and conveys Pinocchio’s mischievous nature right from the start. He also shows the wooden-headed boy comically trying to choose right from wrong and gradually realizing from his mistakes that choosing to benefit himself instead of others is not always the right decision. Most impressive is the tap-dance sequence choreographed by Julie Tomaino in which Pinocchio performs increasingly rapid and more difficult tap steps to demonstrate how the Puppet Master is working him too hard.

Shawn Wright is a very sympathetic Geppetto, a old man who doesn’t want Pinocchio to know just how much he has sacrificed for him. As the Blue Fairy, Malindi Ayienga has a lovely singing voice and imbues her chiding of Pinocchio with with a sense of maternal love.

More caricatured performances come from the villains of the piece – Jacob MacInnis as the pompous Puppet Master, Joel Cumber as the malicious Fox and Arinea Hermans as the deceitful Cat. Stage veteran Susan Henley appears as the Driver who praises the pleasures of the Terra di Ragazzi, where boys can do everything they are forbidden to do at home or in school. Unlike the previous three actors, she makes the Driver all the more dangerous because she keeps her ulterior motives so well hidden.

Overall, this is a charming musical made into an ideal entertainment for children by its imaginative direction and design and by the superior performances of the entire cast. Though the story is episodic, right from the start Bartram and Hill frame the story as one about choice and give the Blue Fairy a song with exactly that title about how one decision leads to another and another. This means that children will be entranced by all that they see and hear, but will have a theme clearly put to them and illustrated by the events of the show. For those who are so inclined this could lead to thoughtful discussions with either parents or teachers. So many musicals for adults provide no food for thought that it’s quite a treat to find a musical, supposedly only for children, that does. Thanks to Young People’s Theatre for finally bringing this Canadian-written musical home.

For ages 5+.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Connor Lucas as Pinocchio with ensemble; Connor Lucas as Pinocchio and Malindi Ayienga as the Blue Fairy; Shawn Wright as Geppetto and Connor Lucas as Pinocchio inside the Terrible Dogfish. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit www.youngpeoplestheatre.org.