'Pinocchio': Theater Review

Courtesy of Manuel Harlan
Joe Idris-Roberts (center) and cast in 'Pinocchio'
A dream come true.
4/10/2018

Director John Tiffany, choreographer Steven Hoggett and many of their key collaborators unite for this very modern take on the adventures of the famed Italian puppet boy, featuring songs from the 1940 Disney animated classic.

Buoyed by their success with the Broadway-bound London hit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a seamless mind-meld with author J.K. Rowling and the magical brand she created and controls, the team led by director John Tiffany and movement designer Steven Hoggett voyages into yet more challenging waters with their latest theatrical extravaganza, a musical interpretation of Pinocchio at London's National Theatre.

Well, of course, the result is a spectacular work, a moving — in every sense; the cast and set elements seem to be in ceaseless agitation — meditation on what it is to be human. Working from a book by Dennis Kelly (Matilda on stage, as well British TV's cult sci-fi series Utopia), Pinocchio offers a distillation of Carlo Collodi's original 19th-century picaresque novel, strained through the fluffy muslin of the 1940 Disney animated film version. It's then dosed with jiggers of dark 21st-century Gothicism and state-of-the-art stagecraft to make a heady, not-exactly-for-children brew. Although brave 8-year-olds and up, the age threshold recommended by the National, will likely love it.

However, before we go on to the play itself, let us pause to gape in awe at a more invisible, ineffable accomplishment achieved by Tiffany, the producers and no doubt several patient lawyers. Surely, the legal and artistic negotiations to secure rights to the Disney songs alone must have been an epic struggle, possibly one deserving of its own all-singing and dancing show. For verily, this adaptation that blends known and familiar elements into a new, entirely coherent but unrecognizable shape is a most remarkable feat.

It’s as if the team had navigated entrance into the very belly of the corporate beast, and committed surgery on its internal organs. The multi-platform behemoth Disney doesn't cough up its intellectual property for nothing, and the company is notorious for the fierce control it exercises over its brand. This might very well be a one-off agreement, but it would be no surprise if it turned into an augur of collaborations to come, especially given how quickly Disney is expanding its theatrical portfolio.

In truth, the storyline tracks closer to the film's screenplay (credited to seven different writers, although it was above all Walt Disney's own vision), than it does to Collodi's original book, first published in serialized installments in the 1880s. That's just as well, since contemporary family audiences may struggle with a story darker than pitch, where the eponymous wooden-top, at various points, burns off his feet in a fire, is hanged and has all his donkey skin eaten off by fish, among other mishaps.

Nevertheless, embroidering and reworking the narrative, as countless storytellers have done with folk tales over the years, Kelly has shifted and tweaked the plot basics to fashion something that suits these times. For starters, in the opening preamble, it is the dandyish Fox (David Langham, gracefully mincing in platform shoes and orange ombre velvet) that cuts down the tree that will become Pinocchio. But it's the Blue Fairy (Annette McLaughlin) who imbues the wood with potential life.

It's hinted that with her own eerie powers of transmogrification (which allow her to take the form of a puppet, a regular-sized woman, a flickering star and a floating blue flame), the Fairy may also be the ghost of Geppetto's wife, lost when she died in childbirth. And so Pinocchio (remarkable newcomer Joe Idris-Roberts) is made as much from loss, pain and loneliness as he is from craftsmanship and love.

Pain proves to be a key theme here, the very essence of what makes us human. There are laughs aplenty, wry anachronistic jokes in the tradition of British pantomime, as well as plenty of Punch-and-Judy-style slapstick. But pain and death are never far away. The marionettes Pinocchio leaves behind at Stromboli's theater, their strings cut, struggle in the background to move like crippled children as Pinocchio escapes. Likewise, only the cold stars above know what happens later to naughty kids Lampy (Dawn Sievewright) and Waxy (Jack North) once they've been smacked by the cruel hand of fate.

Fans of the National's original production of War Horse will thrill to see similar virtuoso displays of puppeteering skill here again. Inverting expectations, Idris-Roberts' Pinocchio has the dimensions of a regular person, while the adults around him are played by teams operating the double-sized papier-mache characters. Those include Geppetto (voiced by Mark Hadfield, who also operates the head while three others operate the body and arms), the Blue Fairy, Stromboli (voice and head by Gershwyn Eustache Jr.) and the Coachman (David Kirkbride). The way the actors speaking the lines are dressed as mini-me versions of the puppets is peculiarly disturbing and distracting to the eye, but ultimately, like so many odd choices here, it works.

Meanwhile, the show's emphasis on Pinocchio's essential difference from his peers, the fact that he's not "a real boy," will also put some viewers in mind of another National breakout production, the autism-themed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which similarly featured a young man lost in a world like the inside of a mind, all shifting shades of toy-box color and inky blackness. Ace lighting designer Paule Constable, who worked on both the aforementioned shows, uses darkness with the same sculptural skill she deploys with spots, projections and other forms of illumination.

Director Tiffany marshals all these elements with ringmaster finesse, while Hoggett's choreography and blocking work in sync to create the signature fluidity that is so distinctive in their collaborations. Like some infernal steam-punk machine, it all fits perfectly together, greased with an astonishingly accomplished tonal soundscape crafted by music supervisor and orchestrator Martin Lowe and music director Tom Brady.

Taking the well-known, well-worn tunes originally written by Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul J. Smith — "When You Wish Upon a Star," "Give a Little Whistle," "I've Got No Strings" and so on — Lowe and Brady have burned off all the 1940s playbook chirpiness and remade the songs into new shapes, inspired by Italian folk music and forms. Lyrics never used in the film and the background music that might have gone unnoticed have been recycled and incorporated in interesting ways. At one point, two of the original songs are mashed up in the manner of modern Broadway counterpoint to create a creepy racket, underscored, naturally, by a lot of wood-based instruments.

Like the strong, tree-like verticals of Bob Crowley's austerely beautiful set, or the actors who take flight — or to be precise, swim — on wires, this is a production that soars above the rest.

Venue: National Theatre, London
Cast: Mark Hadfield, David Langham, Annette McLaughlin, Joe Idris-Roberts, Audrey Brisson, David Kirkbride, Dawn Sievewright, Gershwyn Eustache Jr., Jack North, Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge, Anabel Kutay, Clemmi Sveaas, Jack Wolfe, James Charlton, Stuart Angell, Michael Taibi, Scarlet Wilderink, James Charlton, Rebecca Jayne-Davies, Sarah Kameela Impey, Michael Lin, Stephanie Bron, Linford Johnson
Playwright: Dennis Kelly
Director: John Tiffany
Movement director: Steven Hoggett
Set and costume designer: Bob Crowley
Music supervisor and orchestrations: Martin Lowe
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Sound designer: Simon Baker
Songs: Leigh Harline, Ned Washington, Paul J. Smith, adapted by Martin Lowe
Puppetry director: Toby Olie
Puppet co-directors: Bob Crowley, Toby Olie
Music director: Tom Brady
Illusions: Jamie Harrison
Presented by The National Theatre, by special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions

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