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.
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.