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Actors, puppets, songs all charm while script confuses at New Phoenix in BUFFALO PINOCCHIO.

THE BASICS:  BUFFALO PINOCCHIO, a new adaptation of the classic story, written and directed by Richard Lambert, stars a wide variety of puppets and marionettes and humans who are: Todd Fuller, David Adamczyk, Betsy Bittar, Frank LaVoie, Joni Russ, Mary Moebius, Mark Bogumil, Suzanne Fitzery, Kathleen Ashwill, Leonard Ziolkowski. With several musical numbers, it runs through December 17, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 at the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park (hint: plenty of parking on Elmwood Avenue). Soda, beer, wine available. Runtime 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. (853-1334) www.newphoenixtheatre.org

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Pinocchio, originally a character in an 1883 children’s novel (a cautionary tale), is probably best known from the Disney animated feature, but playwright Richard Lambert seems to have gone back to the original text, as follows: Pinocchio is a puppet (technically a marionette, since he is manipulated by strings) created by a woodcarver named Geppetto. Pinocchio is a mouthy rapscallion right from the start, he wants to be “a real boy,” his nose grows when he lies, he is befriended by a Cricket and the Blue Fairy, he is tricked out of his money by Fox and Cat, he is hanged until pronounced dead (a plot element that Disney avoided and Lambert gets around), his best friend Lampwick leads him astray to a land where there is no responsibility, his father goes looking for his lost “son” and ends up in the belly of a giant fish, and, as Pinocchio starts caring for others (primarily his “father” Gepetto) and taking responsibility, studying at school, working hard at a job, and then searching for and ultimately rescuing his father, he is finally transformed into a real boy. It’s a coming of age story, although some see it as heroic. That works too.

The tale is framed by the conceit of a rag-tag group of asylum seekers/immigrants who, in a post-apocalyptic Buffalo.

In this production, the tale is framed by the conceit of a rag-tag group of asylum seekers/immigrants who, in a post-apocalyptic Buffalo, with the sounds of war raging outside, take shelter in a theater where they are told a story (consistent with many post-apocalyptic tales where oral history is the only way to pass on knowledge) by the theater’s (what? manager? playwright? Pinocchio?). As the story of Pinocchio progresses, the seekers take on all the roles using elaborate costumes and cleverly constructed puppets. With cello, violin, and guitar accompaniment (did I mention how talented this cast is?) there are several catchy songs and there is also a disco dance number called “Abadabaland” which is so good that it’s reprised at the end.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: A “play within a play” is a time honored theatrical tradition. This version, though, takes too long to get going. Act II was much more cohesive and entertaining than Act I. That’s not unusual for many theatrical works which require a lengthy setup, but here it didn’t seem necessary.

Playwright/Director/New Phoenix Theatre Founder and Executive Director Lambert wrote that he wanted to follow up on recent “holiday” presentations such as PETER PAN and TOM SAWYER, but also HARVEY and CLOUD NINE.

That is an unusual “holiday” (his word) list, which I have put into the order of most appropriate for children to most adult/political. And that illustrates the problem here. Unfortunately, BUFFALO PINOCCHIO is neither a children’s play (and it could have been a contender, rivalling Theatre of Youth) nor is it political enough to drive home a point (and it could have been a knockout, rivalling Subversive Theatre).

It is confusing and so it probably won’t get enough buzz to fill the seats, which is a shame, because so many things are so charming, starting with the set, which is crammed with more puppets and weird artifacts than I have ever seen, including a “scary” portrait that talks and a huge Pinocchio head whose nose grows with appropriate slide whistle SFX. It’s all magical crazy as if Tim Burton had made the Mad Max movies.

And, somewhat muddled script aside, kudos to director Lambert for keeping most of his actors on stage at all times, or at least moving them fluidly offstage, while keeping our attention focused on the main action. Not an easy trick. And those puppets! Not all by Buffalo treasure Michele Costa. Some of the best were by Franklin LaVoie and Leonard Ziolkowski (both of whom were on stage to manipulate their creations) and, hey, who doesn’t love a good puppet show?

This is the second “great acting and production elements but muddled script” production that I’ve seen in the past week. Writing this review felt like deja-vu because they’re having the same problem over at Road Less Traveled Productions with a script based on Charles Dickens’ THE CHIMES. Both CHIMES and PINOCCHIO were scripted as stage works from longer prose works and could have benefitted from a little more editing or at least an easier to understand moral to the story. Just as with THE CHIMES, BUFFALO PINOCCHIO has the playwright also directing. That may work in other cases, but in these two productions, it may be the root of the problem.

Two-half-Buffalo

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

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Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

If you enjoy public radio and television in Buffalo, you’ve probably heard or seen Peter Hall asking you for money. He’s the co-host of “Theater Talk” with Anthony Chase (Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO, 88.7 FM) and is the afternoon drive host on Classical 94.5 / WNED where he also produces and hosts “Buffalo Philharmonic Live” (Sundays at 5 p.m. repeating Tuesdays at 11 p.m.) broadcasting BPO performances conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Around town he’s the emcee for Buffalo Chamber Music Society concerts, the Falletta competition, and the Camerata di Sant’Antonio concerts. If you see him at a play or musical with a pen in his hand, he’s probably writing a review for buffalorising.com.

In past lives he has been a Director of Membership for Western New York Public Broadcasting (PBS and NPR), a Director of Marketing for Canisius College, and before that was a Director of Marketing for Fisher-Price. He feels fortunate to have worked for some of the most trusted brands in Western New York.

Growing up in the Amherst school system, music, the arts, literature, outdoor activities, and teaching were important in his family. His grandfather, the painter W.J. Schwanekamp, has works on display at the Burchfield-Penney. His father was a high school English teacher and his mother was a public librarian. In high school, in addition to running track and cross country and being in the ski club, Peter played various instruments in the orchestra, had leading roles in the plays, and was an editor of the high school newspaper. Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty years he has taught undergraduate and graduate classes at Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

Depending on the season, on weekends he can be seen riding with the Niagara Frontier Bicycle Club or teaching downhill skiing at Kissing Bridge.

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