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Connor Lucas’s sparky Pinocchio, left, tap-dances and plays the fiddle. The Fox (Joel Cumber), right, and Cat (Arinea Hermans), centre, are a wisecracking song-and-dance team.Cylla von Tiedemann/Handout

  • Title: The Adventures of Pinocchio
  • Written by: Brian Hill
  • Music and Lyrics by: Neil Bartram
  • Genre: Musical
  • Director: Sheila McCarthy
  • Actors: Malindi Ayienga, Noah Beemer, Joel Cumber, Susan Henley, Arinea Hermans, Sierra Holder, Connor Lucas, Jacob MacInnis, Kelsey Verzotti, Shawn Wright
  • Company and Venue: Young People’s Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

After a string of familiar family musicals (Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, The Wizard of Oz), Young People’s Theatre is shaking things up this holiday season with an unfamiliar one.

The Adventures of Pinocchio is a little-seen musical adaptation of the classic children’s tale by the Canadian team of Neil Bartram (music and lyrics) and Brian Hill (book). Although it premiered in 2011 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which commissioned it, this is the first time the show has been staged north of the border.

So, for once we’re not going into Young People’s Theatre humming the tunes. I did leave the opening-night performance humming one. However, it wasn’t one of Bartram’s, it was Stephen Sondheim’s Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Alas, Pinocchio’s upbeat signature tune sounds an awful lot like it.

That’s to say the songs are derivative – a little Sondheim here, a little Kander and Ebb there, plus the obligatory modern power ballad for the Blue Fairy. Not that the children in the audience are going to care. The music is pleasant, the lyrics have wit and, besides, YPT has turned out another winning production, packed with up-and-coming talent and conceived with imagination and verve.

Hill’s adaptation is a loose, abbreviated retelling of Carlo Collodi’s original 1880s novel, with most of its dark moments erased. He also steers clear of the changes made in the 1940 Disney animated version, so if you’re expecting our boy puppet to have a talking cricket sidekick, you’re out of luck.

Instead, Hill and Bartram have given the story a breezy, vaudeville spirit that director Sheila McCarthy’s staging embraces with gusto. Connor Lucas’s sparky Pinocchio isn’t just a living puppet, he also tap-dances and plays the fiddle. The Fox (Joel Cumber) and Cat (Arinea Hermans), those con artists who fleece him, are a wisecracking song-and-dance team.

The costumes are elaborate and the set is simple.Cylla von Tiedemann

There’s also a touch of the carnival charlatan in the figures of the Puppet Master (Jacob MacInnis), who enslaves Pinocchio in his marionette show, and the mysterious Driver (Susan Henley). MacInnis is a nasty delight as the tyrannical impresario whose florid Italian accent keeps slipping to reveal a Cockney snarl. Henley is masterful as the smooth-talking coachman who lures Pinocchio and his fellow boys with promises of a child utopia.

It’s a rough world out there, what with all these tricksters and taskmasters, and Pinocchio learns the hard way that his future is determined by the decisions he makes. Happily, he has the Blue Fairy (an amusingly fierce Malindi Ayienga), who dispenses some tough love while guiding him on the path to becoming human. She also carries with her a basket of noses, of various sizes, to plonk on Pinocchio’s face when he starts lying.

That bit of Gogolian whimsy is just one of the clever touches here. Another is the scene where Pinocchio and his wood-carver father, Geppetto (a gentle, grizzled Shawn Wright), are lost at sea, in which the waves are created out of long streamers, unfurling from Ayienga’s glittering blue gown.

Designer Joanna Yu has kept the set simple and the costumes elaborate, including some charming masks and a neat transparent outfit for Pinocchio that simulates wood grain. There’s a bright, bouncy sound from music director David Terriault, leading a keyboard-wind-percussion trio, and plenty of playful choreography by Julie Tomaino.

You might think that Pinocchio is the perfect fairy tale for the Trump era. In fact, Hill and Bartram de-emphasize the young hero’s falsehoods and instead focus on his choices and their consequences. He also learns that empathy is the key to being human. Not bad messages for kids to take away from the theatre, maybe even better than hummable tunes.

The Adventures of Pinocchio continues to Jan. 5. (youngpeoplestheatre.org)

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