Mercury Theatre Company, now celebrating its 20th anniversary in Cleveland, has a long history of selecting exceptional shows. And they have usually produced them extremely well, such as their dazzling Camelot in 2015 and last year’s La Cage Aux Folles. Even when the show selections aren’t particularly interesting, director Pierre-Jacques Brault usually finds a way to bring snap and wit to the proceedings.
However, their current production of My Son Pinocchio fails to deliver on most of those points. With a limp book by David Stern and mostly forgettable music by Broadway vet Stephen Schwartz, this show may only be appropriate for small kids. And undiscriminating kids, at that.
This Disney product is devoid of many of the Disney touches that make some of their other stage musicals soar. Instead, this Pinocchio, told from the point-of-view of the woodcarver Geppetto, is a rather joyless and overly didactic exercise in bullying kids to be good and “follow their conscience.”
We need not review the Pinocchio story here, but suffice to say not much extra is offered in this rendition. It even manages to turn Jiminy Cricket, who was a snappy little dresser for an insect, wearing an orange vest and a blue top hat in the 1940 Disney animated film. Here, Jiminy is all green and kind of a scold as voiced and manipulated by Kelly Monaghan.
Yes, the one difference in this show is that some of the characters are portrayed as puppets, some of them larger-than-life including Gerppetto and a couple others. Monaghan and Jonathan Bova as Geppetto do what they can with these puppetry duties, but since the puppets themselves don’t open their mouths while talking or singing, the effect is a bit surreal and off-putting. Bova and Bill Wetherbee as Pinocchio never develop a clear and emotional relationship, which undercuts any possibility of bonding with the audience.
Brian Marshall attempts to bring his signature snark to his role as The Fox, but the part is so woefully underwritten it’s never clear if he’s a villain, a good guy, or just a passerby. And eventually you wish that The Blue Fairy (Claudia Zalevsky) had declined Geppetto’s wish to turn Pin into a boy and leave him as a doorstop or a paperweight.
Schwartz’s songs (he does both music and lyrics) are quite formulaic, with only “I’ve Got No Strings” and “Give a Little Whistle” emerging as more than vaguely intriguing. Indeed, the best song in the show is one not written by him—it’s the classic “When you Wish Upon a Star” by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington.
As always, the MTC performers as directed by Brault deliver all the energy you could ask for. But the material is so lame there’s really no saving it. In addition to the constant lessons being fired at the youngsters in the audience, there is precious little humor in the proceedings to keep adults distracted. (One exception, a clever way that shows Pinocchio’s nose growing.) This lack of amusing asides is odd, since the coin of the realm for these kinds of shows it having comic relief in the form of a wisecracking donkey or a smartass meerkat.
No, everybody is playing this story pretty straight. And as they say, all lessons and no jokes make this Pinocchio a dull boy.
My Son Pinocchio
Through June 24 at Mercury Theatre Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatrecompany.org.