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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!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how “it” all works. For Classical 94.5 WNED and on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society he’s conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists to get at answers. On “Theater Talk” his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply “What’s goin’ on?” In every situation he’s in Peter wonders: “What’s the big picture here?” And, “if I had to teach this, how would I break it down to explain it?”

That’s why he loves writing reviews. A show with a strong message that makes him laugh and cry and think about life is a good show. Heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM “Theater Talk” repeats Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED, the radio station where Peter is currently the afternoon drive host as well as producer and host of “Buffalo Philharmonic Live” (Sundays at 5 p.m. repeating Fridays at 10 p.m. on WNED). For the Buffalo Chamber Music Society he moderates on-stage pre-concert chats with the artists and is on-stage host of the Falletta (classical guitar) Competition.

Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business. He is currently a member of the “Artie Awards Committee.”

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