Neil Bartram & Brian Hill Carve a Musical Pinocchio, Opening July 21 in Chicago World Premiere
By Kenneth Jones
Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier has been transformed into a European-style marionette theatre for its world-premiere summer musical The Adventures of Pinocchio by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, the writers of Broadway's The Story of My Life. It opens July 21 following previews from July 13.
A commission by CST Family, the new musical about the puppetmaker Geppetto and his enchanted wooden puppet Pinocchio — drawing from Carlo Collodi's 19th-century Italian story — plays to Aug. 28 on the thrust CST mainstage. Bartram (music and lyrics) and Hill (book) are Drama Desk Award nominees for their two-character musical The Story of My Life, which is finding fresh life in regional theatres.
Pinocchio features Chicago newcomer Skyler Adams (Lyric Theater of Oklahoma, Music Theatre of Wichita) as Pinocchio, who is carved from a magic tree and stumbles his way through coming-of-age adventures that lead to him "Being Real," as a primary song sung by the Blue Fairy puts it.
The cast includes five-time Jeff Award nominee Don Forston as woodcarver Geppetto; Melody Betts as Blue Fairy; Derek Hasenstab as Fox; Heidi Kettenring as Cat (through July 31); Ericka Mac as Cat (beginning Aug. 3); Liz Pazik as The Driver; Ron Rains as Puppet Master; Hannah Sielatycki as Mary; Dylan Saunders as Lampwick; and Katie Spelman as Annette.
Rachel Rockwell, who staged the 2010 summer world-premiere CST Family musical The Emperor's New Clothes, directs.
According to the Tony Award-winning CST, "Woodcarver Geppetto, mourning the loss of his wife, carves a wooden boy named Pinocchio in honor of the son they never had. Pinocchio is eager to explore the world and, before long, the fun-loving boy is tricked into working for a puppet master, swindled by smooth-talking scam artists Fox and Cat, and tempted to climb aboard a dangerous coach bound for 'Terra di Ragazzi,' the Land of Boys. Through their journey together, Pinocchio and Geppetto learn about the importance of family — and that making choices is one of the most important and precious parts of being human."
Pinocchio was developed in several workshops at CST, under the leadership of creative producer Rick Boynton.
"I first met Neil and Brian when their song 'Mrs. Remington' from The Story of My Life was performed at a National Alliance for Musical Theatre Songwriter's Showcase," Boynton told Playbill.com. "I fell in love with the song and their talent. We met last summer to discuss projects we could work on. I suggested we think of something for our CST Family Series and we all simultaneously said 'Pinocchio'!"
The physical design world of the production has a distinctly European, handcrafted feel.
Boynton said, "We were struck by images from interiors and inner workings of old European puppet theatres and wanted to capture that quality. Also, our marionette designer and builder Meredith Miller has an inherent Eastern European whimsy and earthiness to the puppets she creates. We knew her marionettes would fit perfectly into this world."
He added, "I am very proud of the work our artists and craftsmen have done on this show and would be happy to rent any of our physical elements for future productions. It is important to us that any new work developed here has as long and successful life as possible. And we will do whatever we can to make that happen. This show has been a joy to create from the very beginning and I would love the opportunity to revive it here one day."
Bartram & Hill's other musicals include Somewhere in the World, The Nightingale and the Rose and Not Wanted on the Voyage. Bartram is a past recipient of the Jonathan Larson Foundation Award, a Dramatist's Guild Fellowship and a Dora Award.
Bartram's score has the scent of tarantella and Italian street music to it. What inspired the composer?
"Anytime that a location can help to guide the musical landscape it's a gift to a composer," Bartram told Playbill.com. "Brian and I spent some time in rural Italy a couple of summers ago and it was really rewarding to have the opportunity to sprinkle some of that musical flavor throughout this score. But more than evoking a specific place or era I wanted the European elements of the score to convey a sense of mystery. Music from other cultures does that in a very transporting way."
Do the writers write differently for kids than they do for an "adult" show?
"I don't really think there's such a big difference between writing a show for a family audience and writing strictly for adults," Bartram said. "I know there's some isolated vocabulary in my lyrics for The Adventures of Pinocchio that is beyond some children, but I think that's O.K. The only restriction we gave ourselves when writing this was to avoid trying to contemporize the story or give it an ironic sensibility simply to win over the family audience. I'm sure there's a great version of Pinocchio to be written that's set in contemporary Los Angeles, but someone else would do that much better than us. We just wanted to tell the story cleanly in a way that was creative and fresh and struck some universal themes. I'd like to think that's a recipe for good theatre for any age."
For librettist Hill, there were two challenges in adapting from the source material. "One: the expectation is so high because everyone has their favorite version in mind," he told Playbill.com. "And two: the original Collodi stories are crazy and didactic and often very dark. So how do you give an audience what they expect but remain faithful to the spirit of the original? Fortunately, the plot elements that leap out as the most stage-worthy are the familiar ones. So what we've done is offer these familiar plot points, but we've said, 'You know this, but let's go herewith it instead.' When we went back to the original stories we were so happy to find that Pinocchio is an extremely active character instead of a passive naif, as he's most often portrayed. He's actually the architect of his own fate and becomes the product of the choices he makes. He's basically like every kid, running headlong into the world, falling down, hitting walls, and gradually finding his place."
He added, "There are 36 chapters in the original Pinocchio and each one is a different adventure. We knew that our one act show could bear only about four of them. The good news is that we've still got eight more shows worth of material if we want to tackle a sequel!"
A certain cricket makes an appearance in the Chicago Shakespeare production, but it's not the Jiminy Cricket we know from the famous Walt Disney film. Is there a cricket in the original Collodi story?
Hill said, "Ah yes. The cricket. Disney did a fantastic job of turning the cricket into an indispensable character. In Collodi's original, Pinocchio kills the cricket with a hammer in the fourth chapter. We didn't think we should go there. It doesn't exactly sing, does it? So we chose to introduce the cricket — because we knew the audience would want him — but we quickly let the audience know that we aren't going to give them the cricket they expect. It's a surprising little moment that helps let them realize that anything could happen in this version."
The production team for The Adventures of Pinocchio includes scenic designer Kevin Depinet, costume designer Rachel Healy, lighting designer Jesse Klug, sound designer James Savage, puppetry designer Meredith Miller, wig and make-up designer Melissa Veal and properties master Chelsea Meyers.
The musical is for children five years old and up. For more information or to purchase tickets, contact Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Box Office at (312) 595-5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
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