There’s a mirrorball in Sydney Theatre Company’s Pinocchio. And there the resemblance to Strictly Ballroom ends. Of all the bright ideas in this work, created by director Rosemary Myers and writer Julianne O’Brien (who could’ve added some sorely needed smart lines to SB), one of my favourites was the most trivial: I liked the twig sticking out of Pinocchio’s head. It shows even the creator makes mistakes; which allows us to forgive ourselves, now and again.
It’s apples and oranges, but temporal proximity makes comparison inevitable. Sure, we can argue about what a musical is, but that makes little difference to many a paying punter. Pinocchio is the cohesive, coherent show Strictly could’ve and should’ve been. While the strictly diehard are wallowing in cognitive dissonance, rationalising the deficiencies in Baz’s blockbuster by way of rampant nostalgia, others can go ahead and marvel at another richly imaginative offering from Windmill Theatre,which seems to have become an annual fixture of the Sydney theatre calendar. And I’m the last to complain about that.
Windmill’s is a highly collaborative, all-hands-on-deck model and it seems to permeate the work: there’s a palpable increment of belief and commitment that’s communicated through everyone involved. Before I wax lyrically about various aspects of this production, let me first deal with a reservation. While composer and musical director Jethro Woodward’s songs and incidental music is highly entertaining, falling somewhere between The Aunty Jack Show (as do some other stylistic components) and The Wiggles, some of the lyrics are hard to discern (despite superb sound design by Andrew Howard) and where discernible, seem to bear little relationship to the story. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the music. I did. But in terms of advancing or linking narrative, at least one or two seem questionable. In fact, there seemed to be a hidden agenda to put in as much music as possible, with the result that some of it may become a little self-serving, rather than show-serving.
But other than this, there’s little, if anything, to fault. Look at the cast. Paul Capsis shows yet another of the string to his bow as Stromboli, a Croesus, Packer, Rinehart or Palmer; master of his domain and keen to get his grubby hands on others’. With his propensity for larger-than-life animation, he’s like a three-dimensional cartoon character; darkly seductive, indulgently effeminate and wildly comical. Tiny Danielle Catanzariti is suitably ephemeral as Blue Girl, who we see meeting a tragic end on her motorcycle at the very beginning. Jude Henshall laps it up (no pun intended) as Kitty Poo, the pussycat determined to be not only bigger than Jesus, but Beyonce. I had no idea she could sing as powerfully or soulfully as she does, either. Luke Joslin is Foxy, Kitty Poo’s constant companion and as cool as he is wily. Nathan O’Keefe is Pinocchio, the incorrigibly lazy, almost pathologically naughty boy who has some hard lessons to learn. He’s lithe, gangly and moves with all the awkwardness you’d expect from a boy who isn’t quite real. His performance is, in short, perfect. Alirio Zavarce, just like Geppetto, who he plays, has all the right tools to fashion a loving, loveable, lonely man, aching for companionship. Don’t be surprised to find a tear rolling down your cheek. Jonathon Oxlade is worthy of an extra special mention: not only does he puppeteer Cricket, the glowing moral compass of the play, he designed the character, as well as everything else, including the rotating stage, that easily and quickly transports us from scene to scene, the mainstay of which is an emblematic tree trunk which, with clever manipulation, becomes a ship’s bow, a desert island, a slave-trading factory where children are turned into donkeys, and so on. To look at it, you wouldn’t think it viable, but I guarantee children of all ages will be utterly convinced, not least thanks to ravishing storybook projections by video designer, Chris More, who deserves a second helping of credit for the overall success of the production. It wouldn’t have been the show it is, either, without Carol Wellman Kelly’s movement or Geoff Cobham’s moody lighting.
There’s plenty of engagement with the audience, including at adult levels (I especially embraced Stromboli’s vicious insistence on turning back the boat, as Geppetto approached in his hand-made dinghy) and the dialogue is a delicious sandwich, made with alternating layers of innocence and wit, peppered with the odd dad joke. Myers and co have managed to bring Pinocchio into the present without sacrificing any of its traditional values or strengths. Were the author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi, alive today, I’m quite sure he would’ve been thrilled to see his creation in this guise. Pinocchio is a lot less wooden than some characters I’ve seen and, looking out across Sydney’s musical theatre landscape, strictly speaking, there’s nothing to top it.
Featured image by Brett Boardman