Arts & Culture

Review: Music Theatre Wichita’s ‘Pinocchio’ a real charmer

Pinocchio (Topher Cundith) sings “I’ve Got No Strings” as Geppetto (Nicholas F. Saverine) and villagers watch him in “My Son Pinocchio.”
Pinocchio (Topher Cundith) sings “I’ve Got No Strings” as Geppetto (Nicholas F. Saverine) and villagers watch him in “My Son Pinocchio.” Courtesy of Christopher Clark

Yes, of course, Pinocchio is adorable (well, ultimately) and Geppetto is expectedly kindly and fatherly (mostly).

But a fabulously feisty Blue Fairy – unlike the bland beauty of Disney’s 1940 classic animation – comes on like a chirpy, aria-soaring, tap-dancing dynamo who is hilariously over-protective of her magical reputation. She is the unexpected comic spice that makes Disney’s “My Son Pinocchio” an over-the-top delight.

The show is a premiere of sorts – and possibly a pre-Broadway tryout – retooled by Music Theatre Wichita from a 2000 Disney made-for-TV movie with music by Stephen Schwartz and book by David Stern that was subsequently turned into a children’s theater piece. MTW’s Wayne Bryan, who directed, got permission to expand music and choreography, give it some sophisticated sensibilities about father/son relations, pump up production values and see if he could make it Broadway-worthy.

From the enthusiastic opening night audience (which included show creators Schwartz and Stern and a Disney rep as special guests), Bryan and his talented cast succeeded.

The show is fairytale colorful with a good blend of broad comedy for kids, sly satire for adults and misty-eyed, heart-tugging message moments for everyone. And with three rousing production numbers, notably the opening “Toys,” and a cast that includes 22 children, it’s a big show.

Nicholas F. Saverine, an internationally known musical and opera talent with deep Wichita ties, returns for his umpteenth guest role as Geppetto. It’s a more complex and nuanced portrayal than you might expect, with Saverine slipping from kindly old toymaker to cranky, exasperated parent when his new son misbehaves.

Saverine’s face reflects his conflicted emotions as he subtly confronts his character’s hypocrisy about not taking responsibility for parenting. And his warm, powerful baritone (best remembered here for “Les Miserables”) gives full measure to his songs, particularly the show-stopping, lump-in-throat inducing “Since I Gave My Heart Away” when he realizes what Pinocchio actually means to him.

Nine-year-old fifth-grader Topher Cundith is a mischievous charmer as Pinocchio. He doesn’t have the most polished singing voice on stage, but he does embody the engaging, irrepressible exuberance of a real kid rather than the mannered gloss of a child star. His “I’ve Got No Strings” song and dance displays his ability to keep up with adult dancers playing marionettes, while keeping his purposely wooden, blocky movements consistent.

The villain of the piece is the failed marionette maker Stromboli, played with over-the-top, mustache-twirling comic zeal by Shaun-Michael Morse, another longtime musical professional with Wichita ties. In a virtuoso turn, Morse creates more than a dozen different puppet voices and uses them in rapid succession as he (like a ventriloquist) sings and schemes with some of his creations. After a while, you sort of forget he’s arguing with himself.

Morse’s tour-de-force, however, is his boisterous “Bravo Stromboli,” which is halfway between a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song and an operatic aria. Morse has the booming baritone to carry it off, although some of the rapid patter was a little difficult to understand.

Another memorable moment came from Steve Hitchcock as Professor Buonragazzo (literally: good boy), a mad scientist who manufactures perfectly behaved Stepford kids on demand for lazy parents. Hitchcock, a frequent Mosley Street Melodrama performer, is a hoot, bragging “Satisfaction Guaranteed” as he churns out children from a machine like dolls who arrive singing and dancing like so many mini Astaires and Rogerses.

But it is Emily Vargo, a recent Wichita State music theater grad, who steals the show as the Blue Fairy. Vargo packs a whopping operatic soprano into a petite body, and the combination is instantly funny – especially after entering like a 15-foot-tall Glinda the Good Witch in a gauzy gown full of lighted stars (although blue rather than pink). Vargo keeps Blue’s smile firmly in place, like her Cotillion curls hairdo, but her tone reveals she is a force to be reckoned with.

The main set by J Branson has the charming look of a fairytale village, with lighting from David Neville that incorporates starry skies to give a magical feel plus animated projections to bring on the whale. Costumes by Tiia E. Torchia are classy and colorful, and her handling of Pinocchio’s wooden look (plus his growing nose) is convincing. Pinocchio looks exactly like what we have come to expect.

If you go

‘Disney’s My Son Pinocchio’

What: Award-winning composer 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

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

Additional performances: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday; additional matinee at 10 a.m. Saturday for children as young as 3 (children must be 5 for all other performances)

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