London Theater Review: ‘Pinocchio’

Disney's animated classic becomes a musical for the first time, but John Tiffany's staging is all rather wooden.

Stuart Angell, Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge, Audrey Brisson, Stephanie Bron, James Charlton, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, Mark Hadfield,  Joe Idris-Roberts, Rebecca Jayne-Davies, Linford Johnson, Sarah Kamella Impey, David Kirkebride, Anabel Kutay, David Langham, Michael Lin, Annette McLaughlin, Jack North, Dawn Sievewright, Clemmie Sveaas, Michael Taibi, Scarlet Wilderink, Jack Wolfe.

How ironic that “Pinocchio” should be a bit lifeless. With Disney handing over the keys to a cherished classic for the first time, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” director John Tiffany has served up an eye-popping production that is as stiff as a board. For all its staggering stagecraft, this “Pinocchio” is, for the moment, missing real soul. With a little whittle, however, it could still come good.

This isn’t your average Disney tuner. Tiffany and his team — particularly designer Bob Crowley, puppet director Toby Olié and orchestrator Martin Lowe — have re-envisioned Walt Disney’s second feature film into something far less cutesy and far more classical. And yet it’s still, somehow, unmistakably Disney.

It’s a story that asks what it is to be a real person, and Tiffany’s conceit is to turn the tale inside out. He has puppets play people, and people, puppets. Joe Idris-Roberts’ Pinocchio — a bare-chested scruff with a blank expression — is constantly dwarfed by heaving 15-foot tall carnival-float figures: huge hand-carved heads above towering torsos voiced by actors in identical clothes. As he stands on a vast workshop table, staring up into the giant wooden eyes of his creator Gepetto (Mark Hadfield), it’s a cracking illusion – traditionally theatrical, yet quietly enchanting.

It works a treat. You buy into Pinocchio’s peculiar magic – the “puppet” is the liveliest presence onstage. Idris-Roberts, who snaps into shape like a marionette and raps on his head with a hollow knock, is still far sprightlier than the slow, lumbering adults. It also lends the show a child’s eye perspective, as if to celebrate the freedom of youth, and since Pinocchio seems quite real from the start, it puts authenticity, not maturity, at the heart of being truly human.

Popular on Variety

Released in 1940, with the world at war, Disney’s “Pinocchio” was both darker and lighter than Carlo Collodi’s 1881 gothic folktale. Rather than the original impulsive Italian imp, Disney gave the boy-puppet big blue eyes and a bashful innocence, then sent him out into a world full of threats. Dennis Kelly’s book for the stage version — wrapped around Leigh Harline’s original, Oscar-winning songs — retunes the balance. Like Collodi’s, his Pinocchio is all impulse. He’d be his own worst enemy – were the world, like Disney’s, not so rife with dangers.

Kelly sticks to the film’s episodic structure, as a runaway Pinocchio trips from one trap to another. Stromboli’s stage show becomes a hellish hall of marionettes, with a chorus of commedia-style clowns jangling on ropes as Pinocchio gets stuck, singing Lowe’s atonal rearrangements of “Got No Strings” on repeat. Pleasure Island is all heady delirium and shadowy delight, a maze-like funfair where kids sing themselves “Fun and Fancy Free.” (The song’s from a Jiminy Cricket spin-off.) By the time he hits the whale, its ribcage seems a wasteland.

Where all this coheres, it’s because Kelly turns it into a grand battle of conscience. As Audrey Brisson’s puppet Jiminy Cricket – not the little gent in a top hat and spats, but an anxious, hypochondriac six-legged insect – tries to keep Pinocchio on the right track, David Langham’s louche, bushy-brushed Fox is the devil forever on his shoulder. Here, Pinocchio has more free will than the film: He’s tempted more than he’s tricked and, if that softens the terrors of the big, bad world, it restores something of Collodi’s original morality tale. In fact, it’s not far from a Disney version of “Woyzeck”: the tough little guy, battling his baser instincts, is pulled this way and that by polite society.

Kelly, however, is most at home in the sinister amusement park Pleasure Island. Best known for “Matilda: the Musical,” he remains more Roald Dahl than Walt Disney, and it’s when tearaway children race round the fair, necking “al-kee-hol” and puffing on cigars, that “Pinocchio” finally finds the mania and menace it needs. David Kirkebride’s bowler-hatted, double-chinned Coachman is greasily foreboding; a man who (wink-wink) makes much of his charity work. With Dawn Sievewright adding punch as a fighty Scots kid called Lampy, the show starts to lurch like a runaway rollercoaster, spinning into a sickly transformation scene in which kids hee-haw as they sprout donkey ears and hooves.

Around that, however, the show largely skips between set-pieces, and it trades the film’s abundance of character for theatrical spectacle. Some effects are stunning — the Blue Fairy is a gas flame that dances through the air — and Crowley’s designs are never less than sumptuous. Elsewhere it’s clunkier: Idris-Roberts fidgets with his face each time his nose grows, and in stretching a handful of songs across the show, Lowe’s score gets repetitive. It’s also the thing that makes this unmistakably Disney — all tooting tin-whistles and French horns. In the end, as Pinocchio eventually learns, it all comes down to authenticity.

London Theater Review: 'Pinocchio'

Lyttelton, National Theatre, London; 890 seats; £62 ($84) top. Opened, December 14 2017 reviewed December 13, 2017. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Production: A National Theatre production of a musical in two acts by Dennis Kelly with songs from the Walt Disney film by Leigh Harline, Ned Washington and Paul J. Smith.

Creative: Directed by John Tiffany; Design, Bob Crowley; musical supervision and orchestration, Martin Lowe; movement, Steven Hoggett; puppetry, Toby Olié and Bob Crowley; lighting, Paule Constable; sound, Simon Baker; illusions, Jamie Harrison; music direction, Tom Brady.

Cast: Stuart Angell, Trieve Blackwood-Cambridge, Audrey Brisson, Stephanie Bron, James Charlton, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, Mark Hadfield,  Joe Idris-Roberts, Rebecca Jayne-Davies, Linford Johnson, Sarah Kamella Impey, David Kirkebride, Anabel Kutay, David Langham, Michael Lin, Annette McLaughlin, Jack North, Dawn Sievewright, Clemmie Sveaas, Michael Taibi, Scarlet Wilderink, Jack Wolfe.

More Legit

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme

    Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and 'Freestyle Love Supreme' in Exclusive Clip From Sundance Documentary

    Before turning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” into musical phenomenons, Lin-Manuel Miranda could have been found on stage, spouting off-the-cuff rhymes with his improv group, “Freestyle Love Supreme.” After performing across the globe, the troupe — founded 15 years ago by Miranda, his frequent collaborator Thomas Kail and emcee Anthony Veneziale — made its Broadway [...]

  • Ariana Grande 7 Rings

    Rodgers & Hammerstein Are Having a Moment Thanks to Ariana Grande, 'Oklahoma!'

    Jaws dropped when it was revealed that the late musical theater titans Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were granted 90% of the songwriting royalties on “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande’s 2019 No. 1 hit. The dominant motif of Grande’s song is taken from “My Favorite Things,” the cornerstone of R&H’s 1959 musical “The Sound of [...]

  • A Soldiers Play review

    'A Soldier's Play': Theater Review

    Now, that’s what I call a play! Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play,” now being revived on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, packs plenty of dramatic tension into smoldering issues of racial justice and injustice, military honor and dishonor, and the solemn struggle to balance their harrowing demands on characters who are only [...]

  • Bess Wohl

    Listen: The Impossible Plays of Bess Wohl

    The playwright Bess Wohl is always chasing a wild idea — and she’s found that rather than scaring away her collaborators, it just makes them more eager. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I started my career thinking, oh, I’ll just write a play that’s really easy to do,” Wohl said on the latest episode [...]

  • Roundabout Theatre Company: Three New Plays

    Roundabout Theatre's Off-Broadway Season Adds Three Shows From Female Playwrights

    Roundabout Theatre Company, led by artistic director and CEO Todd Haimes, announced Tuesday that three female-written plays will be added to the 2020-2021 Off-Broadway season. Sanaz Toossi’s “English” will make its world premiere in fall of 2020, while Lindsey Ferrentino’s “The Year to Come” and Anna Ziegler’s “The Wanderers” will make their New York debuts [...]

  • Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant,

    Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant, Dies at 73

    Gregg Smith, a dancer, casting director and assistant choreographer who had a long association with director Kenny Ortega, has died. He was 73. Smith died on Jan. 1. The industry veteran worked as a performer in the national touring company of the musical “Hair” and in a Los Angeles production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content