When Pinocchio and Geppetto last crossed paths with composer Stephen Schwartz and writer David Stern, it was for Disney’s 2000 movie-for-television Gepetto. The quartet got along so famously that they’ve reunited for the new family musical, Geppetto & Son. The good news is that when the show works, it positively glistens. But more often than not, this 90-minute musical is as wooden as the legendary puppet at its center.
The show is narrated by the Blue Fairy, winningly played as a sarcastic yet benevolent vamp by Jessalyn Kincaid. Following her lovely rendition of the classic Disney ballad “When You Wish Upon a Star,” (borrowed from the 1940 animated version of Pinnochio), we meet Geppetto (Charles Fugate), a toymaker whose knack for elating the youngest townspeople is made clear by “Toys,” a rousing ensemble number that has all the verve and energy of “Food, Glorious Food” from Oliver.
The revelry quickly takes a darker turn when Geppetto tells the Blue Fairy of his “wish for my heart to be filled” — more specifically, a son who will sate his deep longing for paternity. That wish is partly realized in the form of the marionette that has been sitting in the toy shop all along. When first seen, Pinocchio (Alex Petersen) is tethered to string at his wrists and ankles. When that string is snipped by the Blue Fairy, it unleashes in Geppetto the fervent hope that his alternative family is complete. Alas, Pinocchio is caught lying by his adoptive dad, and, as if Geppetto’s disgust isn’t punishment enough, the puppet’s nose becomes elongated in relation to his untruths. Caught between an unsightly proboscis and a hard place, Pinocchio runs away, discovering a world whose ugliness is completely unexpected yet perversely embraced.
Unfortunately for the production, it’s also a world where the theatrical rewards come only sporadically. The scenes of Pinocchio at school and under the tutelage of Stromboli, the mad puppeteer, are played so broadly and self-consciously by the adult actors that you’re taken out of the story and held hostage to some crass vaudeville show.
The only respite from these follies comes in the beginning moments on Pleasure Island, where wayward boys become braying donkeys under the bad influence of the Ringleader, played by Justin Van Pelt with homage to Alan Cumming’s emcee from Cabaret. But even that number strangely evaporates into little more than filler.
The finger of blame for the manner in which the show becomes a banal trifle cannot be pointed at Schwartz, whose music and lyrics give the piece its surface charm. Conversely, Stern’s book begins logically enough, but soon becomes a disjointed series of set pieces lacking vital connections to either the preceding scenes or Geppetto’s ultimately anticlimactic journey.
Director Jeff Church certainly deserves a shiny toy for casting the superb Petersen and the other excellent child actors who comprise the youth ensemble, but he loses his footing by not tempering his grown-up actors’ distasteful and distracting mugging. Perhaps if they had been threatened to turn into braying donkeys, Geppetto & Son would be a more worthwhile evening in the theater.