CARLO COLLODI’S CLASSIC TALE COMES TO LIFE
At the heart of Chicago’s Navy Pier lies the stunning Chicago Shakespeare Theater. On a recent Wednesday morning, this 500-seat space was packed with eager families and young summer campers for The Adventures of Pinocchio. Despite some narrative rockiness in this new musical, it is thrilling to see Chicago Shakespeare Theater developing a new generation of audiences with such high-quality theatrical productions.
Bookwriter Brian Hill and composer/lyricist Neil Bartram are perhaps best known for their short-lived Broadway musical, The Story of My Life. Their venture into family theater with Pinocchio is a similarly mixed bag. Chronicling the wooden puppet’s misadventures on his way to becoming a real boy, this 70-minute show draws inspiration from the twisted fairy tale mash-up Into the Woods. Bartram’s musical sophistication, including many Sondheimian “wrong note” harmonies, darkens Pinocchio’s tale to engage adult audience members along with the kids.
Unfortunately, the score is dominated by solo after solo, and the show lacks even a big ensemble finale; a greater interplay with the chorus would foster a more dynamic musical profile. “Terra di Ragazzi” is a welcome ensemble number when Pinocchio runs away to a fun-filled island for boys. The chorus cavorts about the stage and interacts with the audience, even tossing a couple of large beach balls into the crowd. Unfortunately, this song is taken at such a breakneck pace that the lyrics are indecipherable; a carnivalesque atmosphere is no substitute for solid storytelling.
The entire show plows through the plot at hyperspeed. Too many adventures are packed into this one-act musical; even for someone familiar with Pinocchio’s adventures, Hill’s book oftentimes gestures towards the plot without fully explaining the action. For children unfamiliar with the story, this can be frustrating; many kids got antsy or turned to their parents, confused by exactly what was happening.
Still, The Adventures of Pinocchio is a stylistically diverse production that keeps the audience engaged with an array of theatrical genres and exciting design elements. The actors are often doubled by beautiful wooden puppets, designed and directed by Meredith Miller. Homespun theatrical magic is present throughout, such as blue sheets that become waves when Pinocchio and Geppetto are swallowed by the whale. Rachel Rockwell’s direction uses the entire theater; most characters enter and exit through the audience, which keeps the kids interested and engaged even when the story may not be entirely clear.
Most importantly, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s remarkable ensemble carries the production with lively and engaging performances. From the moment he is carved from a tree trunk, Pinocchio (Skyler Adams) endears himself to the audience; this lively caricature of a boy commands the kids’ attention and playfully teaches them lessons about the dangers of lying. Of the many characters that Pinocchio encounters on his adventures, Fox (Derek Hasenstab) and Cat (played by Katie Spelman at the performance this reviewer attended) have a particularly villainous, vaudevillian twinkle and a sensuous animal physicality that entertains both young and old.
Although the story could still use some honing, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s high production values make The Adventures of Pinocchio a worthwhile family outing: dynamic and enjoyable for all ages.
stellis @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Michael Brosilow
The Adventures of Pinocchio
scheduled to end on August 28
for tickets, visit http://www.chicagoshakes.com/
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com