A New Pinocchio Is Built At The Arden Theatre

I could very well launch into my coverage of The Arden’s Pinocchio the same way I kicked off my review of the Olde City theater’s production of Cinderella last year: excitement levels were not sky high. The obvious second sentence would then be: I am again an idiot for ever doubting that what we would be seeing would not be the same old tale of a mischievous wooden liar-liar-pants-on-fire. This, of course, is because The Arden is the theatrical gem of our region for families.

The Pinocchio being staged upstairs at The Arden Theatre (from now through June 23rd) is not your grandfather’s Pinocchio. Hell, it isn’t even your older brother’s Pinocchio. And this is a very, very good thing. No lie.

[all photos by Mark Garvin]

Sometimes, for a famous book or movie to make a transition to the stage, a re-framing is needed to tell the story. Or, at the very least, to set-up the familiar story. To present this version Pinocchio, author Greg Banks, and the artistic and set design team at The Arden, have taken their genius up about 4 notches. The first ten minutes of the play, the time in which the audience first learns exactly what they are in for, are uproariously funny. It was truly the hardest we have ever laughed at a children’s show. This is because the conceit behind the telling of this Pinocchio is so creatively outlandish (no, I will not reveal any of the secrets!) that you will quietly marvel at the approach, even as the theater is anything but quiet.

Okay, so the Arden’s Pinocchio does briefly descend into a morality play about the relative evil of non-stop play,¬†as manifested in living a life with your head buried into an iPhone or similar handheld device, vs. education. I won’t lie, I groaned when I saw the direction things were going on stage, but my “oh crap, this is going to turn into a Berenstain Bears story” fear disappeared five minutes later as the waves of sheer absurdity crashed down all around us. I think it was the hilarious “That is messed up!” line from actress Maggie Lakis (as Judy) that assured me all was okay, that this was no way near a heavy-handed lesson play.

A lot of children’s theater can get a laugh from its audience, but what continues to set The Arden apart from run-of-the-mill local children’s theaters is the daring decision to cast shadows across even the sunniest of stories. There is a sadness present throughout much of Pinocchio and this, as I discussed with the Arden’s artistic director Terrence Nolan after the performance, is crucial in separating cutesy children’s theater from professional children’s theater that is cute. There is confusion and melancholy that streams throughout life, starting at a very early age, and to ignore that entirely would not be honoring the genuine experiences of childhood and not paying respect to the complexity of a child’s emotional life. If you immediately see the corollary between cutesy children’s music and professional music for children that is also cute, well, give yourself 5 points. You’re an observant one!

We almost always have a good time at an Arden childen’s show, but at Pinocchio we laughed harder than ever before. Afterwards, the kids even took a break from repeating lines from Wreck-It Ralph to quote chunks of the script, especially those uttered by the brilliant Doug Hara as Cricket, whose whispered riddles and sly sarcasm intrigued the Bear enough to pick up a couple riddles-for-kids books from the library the very next day.

Pinocchio runs through June 23rd at The Arden Theatre. Get your tickets now.

*OWTK received tickets to the opening night of Pinocchio to facilitate this review. The opinions above are honest and unbiased, as always.

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