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Theater review: TYA’s 'Pinocchio' follows un-Disney path

The Theatre for Young Audience presents "Pinocchio." Photo by Daniel Benoit / Duluth Playhouse Facebook page

You are pretty much guaranteed to see puppets of some type in any Theatre for Young Audiences production. So it is not surprising that this summer, TYA has gotten around to providing their own take on the most famous puppet of all.

In TYA's "Pinocchio," which opened on Saturday, the original script written by Robert Lee and directed by Jonathan Manchester sticks to episodes from Carlo Collodi's classic children's book "The Adventures of Pinocchio." Be forewarned: this means some un-Disney-like elements. For example, Pinocchio's first act as a living puppet is to start kicking Geppetto.

Cheryl Skafte as Pinocchio shifts seamlessly from cackling bad boy to wide-eye innocent. Her rapport with the kiddies is instant, and no matter how loud the audience gets, she makes sure she is heard.

As "The" Cricket, Jacob Lindig serves as the narrator — and controller of a key plot device — rather than as Pinocchio's conscience. Clearly a big-city cricket, although which of the five boroughs is the source of his accent is unclear.

Lee also plays both Geppetto and the Cat (who is most decidedly not Figaro). Jesse Davis plays puppeteer the Great Magnifico and Pinocchio's pal Devino, but it is the image of him as the Blue Fairy that will never, ever leave your mind.

Lacy Habdas completes the cast as the Police Officer, Fox, Ring Master, and most memorably as a Vendor offering a variety of unpleasant vegetables.

Pretty much from the start, TYA has had a clear playbook dictating the elements that make an engaging show for kids both large and small. More importantly, they have been refining these elements with each show.

Characters will run through the audience and dance crazily. While some audience members get to come onstage, everybody is required to answer questions, shouts out suggestions, and help tickle the whale.

Getting kids to talk back is tricky because you are either going to get too little or too much participation. This original script is tailored to get "too much," but the cast clearly knows how to work with (and over) that to keep things running smoothly.

Projections on a trio of screens now include some elaborate animated segments as well as static images to keep changing the backdrop to the action.

That action is fast paced to keep the small fry engaged. There always seems to be a segment toward the end when things start to drag a little bit, but "Pinocchio" overcomes that this time around by actually having the plucky puppet swallowed by the whale onstage (really) in the production's most impressive moment.

For me, a key constant is that in the grand tradition of moose and squirrel, there are jokes and gags aimed right over the heads of the kiddies and directly at the adults. This is as it should be because the kids are not the ones paying for those tickets.

Be aware: This show runs just the one weekend this month and then returns the second weekend in July.

If you go

What: The Theatre for Young Audience presents "Pinocchio"

Where: Depot Theatre, 506 W. Michigan St.

When: Sunday (June 24) and July 15 at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 14 at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Tickets: $15 for adults, $12 for Youth/Students. For information: (218) 733-7555 or www.duluthplayhouse.org

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