By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Seven years ago, a musical-writing duo with a string of sassy re-angled fairy-tale musicals for kids to their credit got their mitts on a different sort of adventure. It was free-wheeling and fantastical, crazily episodic — a kooky (not to say bizarre) series of con men and animals, monsters, underwater encounters, oddball violence, diverse dismemberments. Dark, yes; Grimm, no.
The fairy tale was Carlo Collodi’s 36-chapter 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio. And the hero was a wayward marionette whose dad was a poor woodcutter and whose dream was to become a real live boy.
The Alberta Opera team of Farren Timoteo and the late composer Jeff Unger, who specialized in original re-angled musical versions of fairy tales, were irresistibly attracted to its oddities. “It was episodic, energetic, eccentric — and Italian!” says Timoteo, by way of explanation. Their award-winning Pinocchio is back this weekend in a new production at Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series before it hits the (very) long and winding road to Alberta schools, 298 performances till June.
“The Adventures of Pinocchio had been serialized in Italy’s first paper for children,” says Timoteo. “And, yes, there were several grim moments… Originally it had ended in a very grisly way; Pinocchio died by hanging.” There was so much outrage from fans that Collodi was persuaded to write another 18 episodes.
“The collection was enormous…. We knew we could do anything with it, and it was so much fun trying everything!” Timoteo says. “Jeff and I would be forever asking each other ‘is it too silly?’ And forever answering ‘nope! let’s try it!’ As long as we were laughing, and the actors in rehearsal were laughing, we felt we were on the right track.”
Playwright/ actor/ director Timoteo, whose family background is Italian, was attracted, too, to exploring his cultural roots. “It was the first time I’d done that,” he says, “before I’d ever even been to Italy.” And it has inspired other Timoteo creations; Made In Italy, his solo show returns to the Citadel Club this season, and runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre.
Their Pinocchio is a high-speed theatrically ingenious musical for three actors who play 22 characters constantly moving from location to location, “eight settings in 60 minutes” says Timoteo, fresh from directing Alberta’s first pro production or Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale at the Fringe. He remembers that he and Unger were constantly egging each other on as they created the show: “let’s go further; let’s have more! It was in our DNA….”
And Unger, whose appealingly complex, sophisticated musical theatre writing lives way outside the mainstream for kids’ shows, stepped up with a lively journey of styles to parallel Pinocchio’s adventures — Italian tarantella opener, Gilbert and Sullivan number, American gospel number, says Timoteo. “Gepetto’s song One Wish is deeply inspired by Sweeney Todd,” Timoteo and Unger’s all-time favourite musical.
Timoteo and Unger’s joint debut with the venerable touring company in 2008 was a version of Little Red Riding Hood in which the wolf was a school bully with an identity crisis in progress. They followed that up with a 12-character reinvention of Hansel and Gretel in which a cautious, logical sort of girl and her more impulsive little bro have to take a showbiz gamble; their evil step-mother is a sultry German chanteuse who delivers a torchy showstopper I Want It All.
“Pinocchio, our third full new work was the evolution of a (very theatrical) style we’d stumbled onto, and developed with Hansel and Gretel,” says Timoteo, who has himself toured in an Alberta Opera show (Jack and the Beanstalk, with Andrew MacDonald-Smith).
“We wanted to do something original, something new …” something that decisively wasn’t the famous 1940 Disney animation. So they went back to the oddball Collodi source material, with its spectrum of whimsical and dark. And they lighted on the idea of focussing on a father-son story for their new musical. Gepetto’s human son Vincento has left home, and Pinocchio, who emerges from a trunk ready to sing and dance, undertakes to travel the world and bring him back to the grieving papa. “It’s an odyssey, a revolving door of characters!” says Timoteo.
There’s a poignant aspect to reviving Pinocchio, of course; Unger passed away in 2015. But as a colourful new production, with a trio of fresh MacEwan musical theatre grads, prepares to set forth into the world, Timoteo says “it’s amazing to see how an artist lives on his work!”
Roxy Performance Series
Theatre: Alberta Opera
Created by: Farren Timoteo and Jeff Unger
Directed by: Farren Timoteo
Starring: Chariz Faulmino, Cameron Chapman, Josh Travnik
Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: Friday through Sunday
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca