With guest reviewer Aria Noori, aged 12.
Pinocchio – the little wooden boy whose nose grows when he lies – isn’t quite so little in this production from Windmill and the State Theatre Company. Nathan O’Keefe in the title role towers over many of his cast mates, but carries it with such childlike joy – and young manipulative ignorance – that the almost awkward height of the boy is endearing.
In 2009, Windmill’s last big-scale family musical production was The Wizard of Oz, building off the established stage show (in turn based on the film) with new musical arrangements and a bizarrely twisted lens. While the production toured to Sydney, a much larger scale tour was planned before the rights were stripped by virtue of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production opening on the West End.
Partially to avoid a similar loss, this Pinocchio doesn’t derive from Disney’s 1940 animation, but is a new version built off Carlo Collodi’s original stories. Created by director Rosemary Myers with writer Julianne O’Brien, Windmill have shifted the emphasis of the work off the nature of lies which we all associate the story with, onto lessons of greed and love.
Myers and her creative team mix both flashy stage technology with obvious and delightful theatre trickery. Geoff Cobham puts on just as much as a light show we’ve come to expect, with his trademark balance of creating lighting which is at once obvious but manages to fit perfectly within the action and the rest of the design. Jonathon Oxlade’s stage includes several revolves, where much of the scenic design and transitions are created by projected imagery (video designer Chris Moore) onto an otherwise blank wooden structure representing a tree stump.
It’s the moments when the play fully invests in the unadorned theatrics of the affair and the environment, though, where it truly comes alive. As Geppetto (Alirio Zavarce) “carves” Pinocchio out of a tree trunk, we simply have O’Keefe hidden in a wooded tube, which drops down in layers before the boy is reveled. As Geppetto searches for Pinocchio out at sea, we see Zavarce’s legs sticking out from under the row-boat, as pieces of blue material spin around the base of a revolve. Cricket (a puppet operated and characterised by Sam Routledge) frequently breaks the fourth wall and makes jokes often more about the audience and the act of watching a play than the play itself. These moments are also embellished as the band, rabbit ears sticking up over the pit, are joined by cast members, costumes and all, to build up the sound.
These elements lead to an embracing of the façade of theatre, with acknowledgment the actors on stage, the musicians in the pit, and the audience are all part of the same suspension of disbelief. Though the exposure of the craftsmanship everyone is part of the same theatrical exploration; there is joy the revelry of the imagination and the recognition and understanding of childlike innocence and play.
The work in its premier season is not without its problems, however. It runs at two hours and ten minutes (including interval), and it feels at least that long. Keeping the episodic nature of Collodi’s novel, Pinocchio seems to learn and then forget the exact same lessons (of greed verses love; of fame verses family) multiple times. This doesn’t quite flatten the character development, but leads to a strange balance of progression and regression along the same plane. Some areas, too, took too long to be embellished: in particular the opening moments of the play, with a girl (Danielle Catanzariti) flying on a motorbike before crashing into a tree, weren’t explained until the second act, and even then seemed superfluous.
Some of the jokes fell flat on the audience (although the audience at the show I was at averaged much younger than the 8+ suggested by Windmill). Jethro Woodward’s music is unfortunately somewhat hindered by an uneven sound balance. And while serving the story and characters – particularly in the high-energy ensemble numbers – the music never quite reaches the earworm stage that has the ability for a musical to stay with you after you leave the theatre.
Ultimately, though, the fun of the show manages to overcome the issues. In the best role we’ve seen him in for a while, O’Keefe carries the show with ease and joy. His balance of joy and command over the stage are beautifully at show here. While Pinocchio – young, petulant, demanding, with a self-centredness that can’t see past the end of his nose – is hardly the typical character to route for, O’Keefe’s manner, but perhaps more to the point, Zavarce’s loving, and slightly bumbling Geppetto, does create a relationship you want to see survive.
Geoff Revell brings the right level of smarminess to Stromboli – there is never any doubting the bad guy is the bad guy. Derik Lynch (as Fox) and Henshall (occasionally plagued by some strange accent woes) enjoy and celebrate every minute of pandering to the audience in great performances that has you laughing with the characters as much as you’re wincing at them. Catanzariti’s sweetness (with a little bit of sass) is as only emphasised by the extreme height difference between her and O’Keefe, and it’s unfortunate the Blue Girl is underdeveloped. Routledge’s Cricket sits outside of the action a lot of the time commenting to the audience, the small puppet both building the relationship with the audience, and somewhat delightfully commenting when the relationship isn’t quite going to plan.
When Pinocchio is good, it is very very good. It’s all those things a family show should be: it’s fun, it’s accessible for everyone but talks down to no-one, it embraces both the now the show is playing in and the heart of the classic, while also embracing both the now of projected animations and the theatrical magic of creating a shark out of a tree stump.
What the play was about?
The play was about an old man named Geppeto who really, really wanted a son but could not have a real son so he carves one out of a tree and names him Pinocchio. But Pinocchio is very naughty and runs away from home where he meets Kitty and Fox who are pick-pockets. They take him away to Playland where they go on lots of rides and it is all fun until they find out they are going to be turned into donkeys. So they escape and then Pinocchio finds out his father is looking for him out at sea. Pinocchio tries to rescue him but he gets washed up on an island and meets a blue girl who trains Pinocchio to swim and so he swims out to sea and manages to rescues Geppeto from a shark. And then they all go home.
3 or 4 things you liked about the play
Even though some bits were a little sad, Pinocchio was still quite funny as a play. There was a puppet as well as a human actor who played Pinocchio and he was very believable walking as a wooden boy. Plus there was also an animation cartoon that screened all through the play whenever they had to change the backgrounds.
1 thing YOU REALLY, REALLY liked?
I really liked the way the stage moved and transformed into all the different lands Pinocchio visited. Also the way they did the shark and the ocean was awesome!
What was unusual or different about this play?
Unlike other plays I have seen, the stage turned around and moved when Pinocchio went travelling to different places and Pinocchio’s nose actually grew every time he told a lie.
Anything you didn’t like or was scary?
The story was good but I didn’t like how long the play was. I timed it at 2 hours and 11 minutes with an interval but it could definitely have been much shorter. There were some parts and songs that didn’t help tell any more story or weren’t even funny like when they have those fantasy jokes in Family Guy, so they really didn’t need to be there. I’m 12 and know you have to be pretty quiet in the theatre, but there were a lot of kids younger than me who were making noises and fidgeting around because the play was too long.
How did you feel at the end of the play? (What was the message of the play?)
I felt a little tired after sitting in chair for over two hours… But the message of the play was not to tell lies and not to trust every one you meet – even if they seem nice – and that children should respect their parents and not make them sad by running away.
Who would like the play?
I think kids from 6 or 7 up would like to see Pinocchio. Younger kids will definitely get bored so don’t take them. Adults will also probably like the play because of the music and because it’s about how children should be nice and obey them.
Would you recommend the play?
Overall, I loved seeing Pinocchio with a real theatre critic like Jane. We had a great chat afterwards and I learnt heaps about how they did the play and what it all meant.
Windmill Theatre and State Theatre Company of South Australia present Pinocchio. Director and creator Rosemary Myers, writer Julianne O’Brien, designer Jonathon Oxlade, video designer Chris More, lighting designer Geoff Cobham, composer and musical director Jethro Woodward. With Danielle Catanzariti, Jude Henshall, Derik Lynch, Nathan O’Keefe, Geoff Revell, Sam Routledge, Alirio Zacarce, and musicians Shireen Khemlani and Paul White. At the Dunstan Playhouse. Adelaide season closed. Melbourne season at Malthouse Theatre, September 6 – 29. More information and tickets.
Photos by Tony Lewis.