Arts & Culture

‘My Son Pinocchio’ comes to life at Music Theatre Wichita

Geppetto (Nicholas F. Saverine) gets to know his new son Pinocchio (Topher Cundith).
Geppetto (Nicholas F. Saverine) gets to know his new son Pinocchio (Topher Cundith). Courtesy of Christopher Clark

For 9-year-old Topher Cundith, Pinocchio may get into trouble a lot when he first comes to life, but it’s because he’s curious rather than bad.

“It’s like I was born yesterday,” Topher says of the classic puppet character – created in 1881 by Carlo Collodi – that he’ll be playing in Disney’s musical “My Son Pinocchio” for Music Theatre Wichita.

“He doesn’t know what he does is wrong. Nobody showed him what to do,” says Topher, a soon-to-be fifth-grader at Wichita’s Hyde Elementary. “Things go wrong right away. The first day, I embarrass Geppetto. The next day I lie and run away. When Geppetto tells me to do what everybody else does at school, I get into fights because that’s what they do.”

The upshot for Topher is that Pinocchio is the classic innocent exploring an unknown new world rather than some sort of bad seed intent on breaking rules.

“He’s mischievous, not bad. He’s curious and likes to explore,” Topher says. “He’s just a kid who is learning.”

“My Son Pinocchio,” which incorporates “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “I Got No Strings” from Disney’s classic 1940 animation, is based on an original 2000 made-for-TV movie. The musical, from composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Pippin,” “Godspell”) and writer David L. Stern, starred Drew Carey as Geppetto and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Blue Fairy. It retold the familiar tale of the puppet who longed to be a real boy through the eyes of his adoptive and somewhat exasperated father, the toymaker Geppetto. The show opens Wednesday in Wichita.

Now, thanks to efforts by MTW officials, it’s been expanded into a full-fledged, Broadway-worthy professional production. And it’s a premiere that MTW’s Wayne Bryan is particularly excited about.

“When I saw the (TV movie), I was really taken by the score,” Bryan says. “It has the sensibility of a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ or a ‘Little Mermaid.’ It will appeal to kids but still be apt for adults. The opening number, ‘Toys,’ is as sophisticated and well-written a show tune as you’ll ever hear, with three sets of lyrics from children, parents and Geppetto converging to tell the story.”

The TV musical was revised as “Geppetto & Son” for a 2006 stage production at Coterie Theatre in Kansas City. But then it seemed headed toward a life only as a school or children’s theater offering.

“When I saw the version that (director) Karen Robu put on for Music Theatre for Young People here last year, I laughed and enjoyed it so much that I thought if we (MTW) gave it real production values then it would be perfect for our family show,” says Bryan, producing artistic director now in his 28th year here.

Bryan, who is directing this premiere, contacted Disney, composer Schwartz and writer Stern to get permission to add back sophisticated elements about parenting and father/son relationships that had been simplified for the children’s version. He also got the green light to expand the music through additional arrangements by Jesse Warkentin and dance sequences by Wichita State University choreographer Amy Baker Schwiethale and her associate Casey Bagnall, who say they are incorporating everything from tap to whirling tarantella to a little Fosse strut.

As a result, Schwartz, Stern and Disney representative David Scott will come to Wichita to see MTW’s version, possibly with an eye toward an eventual Broadway run, although Bryan downplays that notion, saying, “That wasn’t our original intention.”

Besides young Topher as the title character, “My Son Pinocchio” stars Wichita favorite Nicholas F. Saverine as kindly but lonely toymaker Geppetto; Emily Vargo as the benevolent Blue Fairy; Shaun-Michael Morse as the villainous marionette maker Stromboli; and Steve Hitchcock as Professor Buonragazzo, a scientist obsessed with creating perfect Stepford-like children who do what they’re told.

Music director Thomas W. Douglas is leading a small, eight-piece orchestra, which he says “will be like chamber music with considerable demands on each player.” In the score are new ballads “in a warm key” that blend gracefully with the familiar, Oscar-winning songs from the classic cartoon.

Set design is by J Branson, with lighting by David Neville and costumes – including Pinocchio’s growing nose – by Tiia E. Torchia. Scenery, props and costumes are all being created in-house.

Saverine says that when he first started looking into this retelling of his character, Geppetto, he was concerned that he didn’t seem to be the kindly soul he had always pictured.

“He seems a little evil at the beginning because, when Pinocchio misbehaves, he complains to the Blue Fairy to take him back. He says she got it wrong because he’s not a perfect son,” says Saverine.

“He always felt like a father to all the town children because of the way they loved his toys. He wondered why people who shouldn’t have children are the ones who always seem to have them. He thought parenting would be easy – just let kids be themselves,” Saverine says.

Then, the actor says, Geppetto realizes his hypocrisy when his own son acts up.

“But he is quickly led by his heart. When Pinocchio runs away, his first thought is to make sure that he will be all right. What I like most about Geppetto is his big heart,” Saverine says.

On the other end of the scale, Morse as Stromboli feels his character, while a wildly ambitious – even creative – opportunist, has no redeeming qualities.

“He’s not as menacing as in the animated film. I don’t think of him as a child-snatcher. Instead, he’s motivated more by money and craves attention. He’ll do anything to be known as the world’s greatest puppeteer,” says Morse. A veteran of MTW shows (most notably opposite future Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth in 1991 as the tragic young lovers of “The King and I”), Morse is also a director and designer for other local theaters.

“This role is one of my greatest challenges because I have to use about 15 different voices for the puppet characters, including four different French can-can girls, Dutch girls and Russian Cossacks. He may be creative, but he’s selfish and self-centered. He’s still a villain. The only good thing about him,” Morse says with a chuckle, “is that he has a fantastic song that’s a cross between ‘Figaro’ from ‘The Barber of Seville’ and (Gilbert & Sullivan patter song) ‘Modern Major General.’”

If You Go

‘Disney’s My Son Pinocchio’

What: Award-winning Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”) adds new songs to beloved old ones for new version of classic fairy tale about a puppet striving to become a real boy; MTW premiere and second show of 44th season

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

When: 8 p.m. June 24-June 26, 2 and 8 p.m. June 27, 2 and 7 p.m. June 28; additional matinee at 10 a.m. June 27 for children as young as 3 (children must be 5 for all other performances)

Tickets: $28-$64-evenings, $26-$56-matinees; call 316-265-3107