Wheelock Takes Pinocchio To Japan (3.5 Stars)

Pinocchio’ – Adapted by Steven Bogart and Wendy Lement, based on the book The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi; Directed by Steven Bogart; Musical Director/Composer, Mary Bichner. Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 The Riverway, Boston, MA, through February 22.

Pinocchio, the beloved children’s storybook character made popular by Disney, is by all accounts a very naughty puppet. Carved by Geppetto from a piece of wood (a gift from the heavens from Geppetto’s dead wife), Pinocchio disobeys his father by selling his hard-won schoolbook and running away, several times over. He befriends the wrong people and mistreats the right ones. This is the tale of the Prodigal Son, who after countless travails, comes back and makes good.

Like all productions at Wheelock, the casting, set design, and direction are first-rate. As Pinocchio, the young Sirena Abalian is just terrific. A natural performer, she throws herself into the role with abandon, and has such a winning personality that you manage to like Pinocchio, even as you want to throttle him for being so careless and stupid. Steven Berkhimer, one of the more versatile actors on the Boston stage today, is equally effective as the sorrowful Geppetto, whose grief over the loss of first his wife, then his son, is palpable. Shelley Bolman and Christopher James Webb, as Cat and Fox, are comically malevolent. Director Steven Bogart manages to create some light and funny moments, given the otherwise dark nature of the script.

Mary Bichner’s elegant score and Cristina Todesco’s stark set design, augmented with colorful props and simple staffs, work together to produce a very atmospheric world onstage.  Choreographer Patricia Manalo Bochnak creates ephemeral and graceful movement with the dancers.

The problem that I had with the show is that for some inexplicable reason, it’s set in Japan, which for this literal-minded reviewer, created a state of cognitive dissonance that never really abated. What the heck brought the Italian-born Geppetto to Japan? (Clearly not a job, as he was pretty broke throughout the piece). Which made me wonder – is he broke because he’s failed to assimilate?  Same for Pinocchio – okay, bad enough that he’s a puppet who wants to be a boy, or the other way around, but he’s in Japan!  And he’s Italian!

That’s not to say that having a play set in Japan did not allow for some beautiful music and movement. If the goal, however, was to educate younger audiences with Japanese music and culture, perhaps a Japanese folkloric play would have been better? And as a mother and sometimes performer of children’s theater, I have to say that two hours and twenty minutes is a little too long for younger audiences to sit through.  

What redeems the piece is the relationship between Geppetto and Pinocchio, as created by the actors and director. When Geppetto presents his boy puppet with a wooden heart, and Pinocchio discovers he is a real boy after all, I teared up. This kind of storytelling is at the heart of what makes good theater, and that is Wheelock’s strength. For more info, go to: http://www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org/current-season.aspx