Advance warning: I'm sure some regular readers are pleading "Enough with the puppets," but I make no apologies for supporting these productions. Anything that can help parents get their wee ones to put down the Wii and watch some live art is worth pulling strings for.
Orlando is built on fairy tales, and whether the Mouse or the mayor peddles the fantasies, happily-ever-after only lasts until the bills arrive. But a few miles up I-4 from the big-name attractions, a real-life Cinderella story is taking place. More than a year and a half after it was shuttered, a resurgent Pinocchio's Marionette Theater is getting a second shot at a happy ending.
Pinocchio's began in 1999 as Puppet Celebration, a touring company that performed kid-centric puppetry in Orlando-area schools and museums. In 2002 they moved into a small space inside the old Winter Park Mall; when that complex was bulldozed to build Winter Park Village, Pinocchio's found a new home at the Altamonte Mall. There they presented founder David Eaton's portfolio of munchkin musicals until January 2008, when the tiny curtain came down for the final time.
Enter Sean Keohane, a writer and performer from the Bronx who has become a regular of late at Orlando puppetry events. He's an expert in the history of the art form, having published translations of 19th-century French Punch & Judy—style scripts and performed re-creations of said shows with his Terrible Polichinelle Theater troupe. One year ago, Keohane moved down from New York with the goal of resurrecting Pinocchio's. It took a little while (as he quipped in his curtain speech, "Don't hire me, I work slow"), but with the support of locals including United Arts of Central Florida and Heather Henson's Ibex Puppetry, as well as the Southern Arts Federation and the National Endowment for the Arts, his dream has become reality. As of Aug. 1, Pinocchio's pint-sized performances have returned.
When I arrived an hour before the "Grand Re-Opening" performance, there was already a sizable crowd waiting around the playground adjoining Pinocchio's performance space. Parents stood in a ragged line across the entrance to the neighboring Sears while their hyperactive offspring beat each other's heads against the soft plastic slides. At the appointed hour, the storefront stage's steel gate rolled up for the first time in 18 months. Keohane emceed a brief red-ribbon—cutting ceremony with the assistance of a towheaded tot, and the audience was allowed into the charming lobby-slash—gift shop (which wouldn't look out of place in a theme park).
The actual theater inside is even more adorable. Royal-red carpeting and crystalline chandeliers frame a flat-painted proscenium, creating a child's-eye caricature of a luxurious old-world opera house. The standing-room-only audience, likely the largest the theater has ever seen, squeezed into every last inch of bench space, with the little ones scooted up on the floor in front of the stage. There was a brief pre-show demonstration of the string mechanisms that make Pinocchio's performers move, followed by a welcome lesson in theatrical etiquette. There was the expected amount of crying and fidgeting, but when the overture began an awed hush fell (briefly) over the wide-eyed audience.
Pinocchio's re-inaugural presentation (through Sept. 13) is Jack and the Beanstalk, a revival of Eaton's re-imagining of the classic fable. In this telling, Jack's widowed mother makes him sell his beloved Bessie, a magic cow that gives chocolate milk and strawberry shakes, to their skinflint landlord Silas. Jack plants the beans he receives in return, and a beanstalk stretching to the stratosphere sprouts overnight. He climbs it and finds Clarence the giant; in this kinder, gentler version the giant doesn't grind Englishmen's bones to make his bread, but rather gorges on beans, resulting in unfortunate flatulence issues.
Eaton's script is a cut above much kiddie fare, with some sly asides for the adults (Goldie Harp, the giant's singing musical instrument, complains, "My G-string is a little tight"), but there's nothing to unduly upset small fry. The songs, written with Kent Smith, are bouncy, brief and a bit wittier than the average. Special effects are simple and effective — a black-light ballet of bouncing eggs (courtesy of Lucy Goosey the golden goose) is the standout scene. The prerecorded songs and dialogue feature the voices of some familiar Orlando talent; I recognized Brett Carson as the giant's overstressed assistant. Best of all, the carved cast (created by John Corbitt and costumed by Elaine Corbitt) exude careful craftsmanship and character. And the live artists manipulating the marionettes from above the small stage — Richard Hudnall, April Tennyson, Jack Fields, Jonathan West and Stephen Blake Gipson — do a first-rate job breathing life into their avatars, so that by the end you're barely seeing the firstname.lastname@example.org