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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Pinocchio’ Nose-Dives After Intro

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the opening minutes of “Pinocchio,” as staged by South Coast Repertory’s Young Conservatory Players, a ragtag rustic sweeps the stage with an improbable stick-headed broom, crooning “caro mio ben” and bantering with the audience. The rest of the actors tumble in, introducing themselves as a raucous traveling troupe of players. And briefly, there’s an irresistibly loose sense of fun.

Then the formal narrative begins. The antics of a seat-of-the-pants theater company setting up in the piazza are abandoned, and the tone of the production moves farther and farther away from those lovely, playful moments at the top.

Adapted by director Diane Doyle from Carl Collodi’s story, this “Pinocchio” is an ambitious production that incorporates mask and staging elements from traditional Italian commedia dell’arte. It also features an original score by Diane King Vann and a company of 15 performers, most of them young and playing multiple roles. There’s so much going on that the show is, of necessity, tightly choreographed, and not much room has been left for merriment.

Twice, though, the production really takes off via delightfully imaginative and theatrical bits of staging, as the company creates Pinocchio’s ride on the back of a pigeon, and the belly of the whale that has swallowed Gepetto. Both effects probably would work equally well without SCR’s luxurious set, lighting and costumes, which, though sumptuous, muffle the inherent gaiety, like a mink coat at a picnic.

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The story is muddy in places, with scads of narration that director Doyle has attempted to punch up by distributing among the actors. The script is peppered with Italian words and phrases that keep promising to unlock the door to hilarity, but never do.

With its music and masks and epic narrative, the production demands versatility and precision of its actors. The Young Conservatory Players all are willing and able, especially Lauren Brody Stewart as a slim sprite of a Pinocchio and Tammy Calder as an appealingly maternal Blue Fairy. But Will Ferrell’s opening appearance as the joking street sweeper is really the highlight of the production. If only the rest of this “Pinocchio” were as simply entertaining.

‘Pinocchio’

A South Coast Repertory Young Conservatory Players production based on the story by Carl Collodi as adapted and directed by Diane Doyle, with original music and lyrics by Diane King Vann. Set and costume design by Dwight Richard Odle. Lighting design by Jose Lopez. Musical direction by Diane King Vann. Choreography by Kathy Kahn. With Kristine Arnold, Tammy Calder, Will Ferrell, Brian Gotterer, Kari Kidde, Casey Martin, Melissa Matthewson, Erik Patterson, Jaclyn Simon, Maggie Slater, Sean Stevenson, Lauren Brody Stewart, Katrina Tangen, Weston Taussig-Roche, Aimee Urmanita and Patrick Pfadenhauer. Continues Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2, 4 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 4 p.m. on the Second Stage at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $10 for adults, $8 for children. (714) 751-7827.

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