Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Okay, it’s taken me far too long to think about the specifics of what makes Young People’s Theatre’s production of The Adventures of Pinocchio so good. The musical by Brian Hill and Neil Bertram is based loosely on the 1883 book of the same name by Italian author Carlo Collodi. It debuted at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2011, and YPT has adapted the show for its Canadian premiere. It is inventively directed by award-winning Canadian actor Sheila McCarthy, whom young audience members might know from her recent work on The Umbrella Academy and Anne with an E.
The YPT production boasts a uniformly strong ensemble cast. Malindi Ayienga is a striking and formidable Blue Fairy; Connor Lucas’ Pinocchio is impish, impudent, impulsive and ultimately irresistible. And in appropriately larcenous turns, the “all-in” Arinea Hermans and Joel Cumber steal the stage every time they appear as the convivial and conniving Cat and Fox. The production is visually appealing, cleverly designed and loaded with humour, charm and unexpected substance.
Since Pinocchio debuted as a book, the character of the marionette who turns into a boy has captivated and held the popular imagination. In the original depiction, Pinocchio is naughty and mean-spirited from the moment of his creation. Collodi intended the story to be a cautionary tale: a tragedy that ends with Pinocchio’s execution at the hands of the Fox and the Cat. Of course, the story of Pinocchio has iterated and evolved through various media, becoming too pervasive in popular culture to track. It’s important to note, however, that the impish but good-hearted mischief-maker with the endearing feather in his cap is a Disneyfication far removed from the “rascal” that Collodi created.
No matter the variation, certain aspects remain consistent in every Pinocchio. Pinocchio is carved from wood by the carpenter Geppetto. He has a nose that grows when he feels stress or tells a lie. After he runs away from Geppetto’s shop, he encounters conniving animals and the famous Blue Fairy. His adventures eventually take him into the belly of a whale. His deepest aspiration is to become a human boy. Audiences will find these characters and this familiar plot intact in YPT’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. They will also be tickled with the charmingly inventive yet simple staging that brings their experiences to life. I won’t spoil the numerous delightful yet economical choices that bring to life the vast range of scenes, including the scenes on the stormy sea, the whale scene and even the way Pinocchio’s nose grows.
If the packaging is surprising and beautiful, the substance of this show is even more impressive. The story’s focus is how Pinocchio learns – the hard way – the consequences of dishonesty. This plot lends itself ideally to the theme of honesty, one of the Seven Ancestral Teachings of the Anishinaabe that the current YPT season explores. But McCarthy ensures this is a nuanced, meaningful exploration of honesty. The show begins with the Storyteller beneath the sign of a crossroads. She explains that this story begins with “once upon a time” . . . as many stories do. The scene foreshadows the numerous figurative crossroads Pinocchio will soon find himself at. Throughout the play, we will see Pinocchio wrestle with tough choices. Each time, he will pick his path, then find himself with a further choice to make.
Life, it is clear, is a series of decisions. Honesty is a series of decisions. And each decision brings consequences that affect Pinocchio and the person who loves him most, his father Geppetto (Shawn Wright). The story ends by returning to the same place with the same sign, so the Storyteller can repeat the same line. The message is powerful and clear: “Once upon a time” is not a statement of fixed inevitability. To the contrary: like PInocchio, we are the writers of our own stories. These stories will unfold themselves bit by bit, based on each decision we make. So we must choose wisely.
The Adventures of Pinocchio is that rarest of holiday shows. It is beautiful to look at, energetically brought to life by a truly winning cast, filled with visual surprise and delight, and anchored in meaning and substance that will prompt valuable family discussion after the show. The decision to see it is one you won’t need to wrestle with.
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What: The Adventure of Pinocchio Music & Lyrics by Neil Bartram|Book by Brian Hill|Directed by Sheila McCarthy|Music Director: David Terriault| Choreographer: Julie Tomaino|Set & Costume Designer: Joanna Yu| Lighting Designer: Louise Guinand|Sound Designer: Adam Harendorf| Assistant Director Karen Gilodo
Performed by Malindi Ayienga (Blue Fairy), Noah Beemer (Lampwick), Joel Cumber (the Fox), Susan Henley (The Driver), Arinea Hermans (the Cat), Sierra Holder (Mary), Connor Lucas (Pinocchio), Jacob MacInnis (Puppet Master), Kelsey Verzotti (Annette), Shawn Wright (Geppetto)
Who: Audiences age 5 – 105 years of age
When: On stage until January 5, 2020; runs 80 min (no intermission) including postshow Q&A
Where: Young People’s Theatre Mainstage, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON
Explore and Learn: Study Guide
Info and Tickets: youngpeoplestheatre.org
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019