BWW Review: THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO is a Magical Romp for Kids and Adults Alike
Pinocchio is not a new story by any means, and according to director Sheila McCarthy's program note, it's been translated into 260 languages since it was written in 1881. With such a wealth of imaginings and interpretations already in the world, Brian Hill (book) and Neil Bartram (music and lyrics) wisely decide to let the simplicity of the fairy-tale take centre stage in THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO.
Set in a small Italian village, the story begins with a woodcarver named Gepetto (Shawn Wright), who longs for the child he and his deceased wife never had. After facing hardship with his work, he's forced to cut down a pine tree that grew from her grave, and from it carves a puppet he names Pinocchio (Connor Lucas), who comes to life and immediately struggles with the fact that he isn't a real boy.
Pinocchio's story is rooted in essential lessons for children, making it a great fit for Young People's Theatre. As he becomes more and more tangled up in the consequences of his decisions, he must decide whether to be truthful to himself and to the Blue Fairy (Malindi Ayienga), who gets a much more fleshed-out role in this version than in other mainstream interpretations, or to continue making choices with negative effects and lying about them.
If Lucas is a whirlwind of youthful excitement and naivety - and he is, tap number and all - Ayienga is the grounding presence with a take-no-nonsense tone that balances out the wild nature of the story. Rounding out the trio of leads, Wright has a gentle, fatherly nature that's perfect for this role, and although it's Pinocchio's journey, it's just as much a story about how one's actions affect the people we love and who love us - something Wright shows simply and beautifully throughout.
Supporting Pinocchio's journey are a rowdy cast of characters, including a controlling Puppet Master (Jacob MacInnis), a ringleader-style recruiter for the Land of Boys (Susan Henley), and the impossible to hate con artist pair Fox (Joel Cumber) and Cat (Arinea Hermans). Each actor is impeccable in their antagonistic roles, simultaneously posing a real threat to the titular character while remaining fantastical enough to not terrify the young audience.
Gone are any traces of the household-name Disney version of this fairy-tale, and to be honest, this version functions so smoothly that you probably won't think about the more mainstream one. Hill's book has remained true to the original fable, with plenty of jokes thrown in to balance the harsh reality of the story - this is a puppet-child who escapes forced labour, is robbed by con artists, narrowly avoids being transformed into a donkey, and is swallowed by a fish. Bartram's music is undeniably catchy and suits the characters perfectly, and the creative elements of the production only enhance the narrative.
A detailed and functional set allows the characters and their eye-catching costumes (set and costume design by Joanna Yu) to dominate in pivotal moments. There are numerous magical outfit reveals, and if the post-show Q+A with the young audience members indicated anything it's that all anyone wanted to know was how the outfits work - the answers were simple, but didn't take away from the effectiveness of Pinocchio's growing nose or the creation of the ocean in mere seconds.
THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO is a straightforward approach to a 150+ years-old beloved tale, but the combination of a well-rounded cast and the boundless imagination implemented by the creative and technical teams has every twist and turn in the puppet's journey bring something new and irresistibly charming to it, making a story that's been a part of most people's childhoods feel brand new.
Young People's Theatre's THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO runs through January 5 at the Young People's Theatre Mainstage, 165 Front Street E., Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca/shows-tickets/the-adventures-of-pinocchio/
Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann