It has become an annual tradition for the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) to present the world premiere of an original musical targeted towards family audiences each December. As usual, this year's production is a slightly off-center take on a well-known children's story and again is the product of composer David Kisor and playwright Joe McDonough. The Adventures of Pinocchio is a fun and entertaining alternative to the many Christmas-themed shows and programs playing this time of year.
ETC Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers proclaims before the show that this is "not your father's Pinocchio" and she is quite correct. The Adventures of Pinocchio takes place where the traditional story leaves off. For those children (or adults) not familiar with the tale, the first song synopsizes the original and introduces the characters. From there, the audience is shown how Pinocchio and his father Geppetto come to America in 1895. After his father's death, the young man continues to learn how to be a human rather than a marionette, and is careful never to tell a lie, for such an act will turn him back into a wooden puppet. The naive Pinocchio eventually starts working for the unscrupulous Madame Denara and her villainous assistant Mr. Nickels. Appearing in Denara's vaudeville show, the grown Pinocchio meets his love, an actress named Moonlight. The two flee the show, after several years of working literally for peanuts, when the evil woman commands them to do some illegal bootlegging, and thus jeopardizing Pinocchio's fate as a man. The second act takes place during World War II, and Pinocchio and Moonlight's rebellious young son, Young Geppetto, runs away from home to join a USO performing troupe he listens to on the radio. Unfortunately, Madame Denara and Mr. Nickels are behind this group also, and plan to use their access to the military to steal secrets for the other side. It is up to Pinocchio and Moonlight to save their son when he is framed by the villains for spying.
The book by Mr. McDonough is fast paced, quirky, and full of laughs. There is a large amount of narrative in the storytelling, supplied by the Cricket - just as in the original story - and this device makes the understanding of the plot easier for the younger audience members. The story incorporates some history and is successful in its attempts to teach moral lessons. McDonough also effectively uses Pinocchio's love for baseball as a framework for several scenes. Despite a few minor holes in the book and the fact that the quickly changing settings may be too complex for some children to follow, the story is uniquely fun and keeps the interest of all theatergoers.
The score by David Kisor is appealing and melodic, if not overly memorable. The ensemble numbers tend to generate more excitement than the solo numbers, but there is no problematic material. The music accurately reflects the time period for each scene and the lyrics are smart and often witty. Mr. Kisor provides a competent piano accompaniment and, as Musical Director, has written some wonderful choral arrangements.
The delightful cast of The Adventures of Pinocchio adds greatly to the piece. Robert B. Rais, one of Cincinnati's most respected actors, has the dual roles of Geppetto and the adult Pinocchio. Though not a powerful singer, Mr. Rais is fully satisfying in his roles. His fine acting blends an endearing warmth with appropriately goofy humor to produce a winning performance. Playing Pinocchio as a Young Man, Ian Dahlman displays an attractive tenor with "When A Puppet Dreams". Eighth grader Drew Simendinger almost steals the show at points as both Young Pinocchio and Young Geppetto. Mr. Simendinger sings with confidence and is at ease on stage. As The Cricket, Michael Bath is loveable and handles the multiple incarnations of the narrator with style and flair. Deb G. Girdler possesses a strong and well-suited singing voice and an assured stage presence, and impresses as the corrupting Madame Denara. Sherman Fracher shows off her beautiful and clear singing voice and is heartwarming in the role of Moonlight. Portraying Mr. Nickels, Drew Fracher (Sherman's husband) use his physical comedy abilities well as the greedy and somewhat dimwitted assistant. The triple-threat chorus members are likewise likeable and talented in multiple roles.
Director D. Lynn Meyers is successful at focusing the complex story into a theatrical piece that is entertaining to audience members of all ages. The flow of the musical is quick and never dull, yet the narration and design elements are used well to keep the younger patrons informed. The choreography by committee is credited to Sarah Basch, Brian Givens, Dee Ann Bryll, and Victoria Morgan and is lively, attractive, and festive.
The scenic design by Brian Mehring consists mainly of a simple wooden and mirrored tiered set that suitably represents various locations including a submarine, a performance stage, and a turn-of-the-century street. Mr. Mehring, however, also provides a unique lighting design that greatly complements the set. At the beginning of each scene, artful images and setting descriptions are projected onto a large scrim, which help to flesh out the visual rendering. Shadows are also cast from behind onto the scrim to good effect. Reba Senske's costumes and the wigs by David Warda are colorful, fun, and professionally presented.
The Adventures of Pinocchio is a light, amiable, and entertaining original musical with a fine cast and interesting design. The show continues through December 30 at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. For tickets, please call (513) 421-3555.