Fortunately, the money's not so big in the theater. This means that artists can take risks, and adults can take refuge in entertainment with brains and heart. Even during the summer. Even at plays pitched to knee biters. Even at a show like The Coterie Theatre's Geppetto & Son, a world premiere Pinocchio update, aimed squarely at the summer's-off set.
Despite its distinguished pedigree a new score and songs by Wicked and Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz Geppetto might seem like Disney's attempt to milk an old property for community-theater dollars. It recycles the best songs from Pinocchio and a sequel, and David Stern laces his script with that sub-Mad sarcasm common to too many fairy-tale updates, imagining the Blue Fairy as a diva who obsesses about her reputation. We laugh at her because she's played with marvelous expressiveness by Jessalyn Kincaid, but it's more dismaying evidence of how mass-market cynicism has corroded kiddie media.
But this is a Coterie show, meaning that modern snark comes second to fancy and that handmade charm trumps corporate gloss. In telling the story of Geppetto's search for his runaway marionette, director Jeff Church has again inspired the best from the Coterie's artistic staff: imaginative puppets and shadow play, costumes both grand and goofy, sound effects that delight and spook.
Songs may be recycled, but hearing Kincaid sing "When You Wish Upon a Star" is a treat, and familiarity hasn't sucked the life from the others. A large cast of kids and grown-ups marches through clever production numbers, many bigger than what the Coterie typically handles and most warranting those gushes of applause from the opening-day audience.
What really sells this is the excellent acting. Kincaid is at her best here, prom-dressed and fairy-winged, playing comic self-involvement. And she's not just funny; her second "When You Wish" is gorgeous. As Geppetto, Charles Fugate manages to be likable even when, early on, he's trying to prove to the Blue Fairy that Pinocchio is a terrible boy. He sings well and musters real feeling from a thin script. Pinocchio himself could be more wooden, but his "I've Got No Strings" is the highlight that it should be.
Supporting roles are filled by area kids and a trio of Late Night Theatre guys, each great fun. Ron Megee mints a half-dozen fresh silly walks, and Justin Van Pelt, with his leaps and knifelike physique, set a couple of teenaged girls in the crowd howling. And Damron Russel Armstrong is just as over-the-top intense as he usually is; for once, the show is keyed to him, and, as a mad scientist designing "perfect" children, he absolutely kills.
Stern's morals come too easily: Be yourself! Don't force your kids to be you! Still, Coterie fans used to more challenging fare shouldn't be put off just because the lessons are Hollywood-shallow. Disney execs may be sniffing around Crown Center, but once the lights dim, this show is all Coterie. Like Pinocchio, this novel theater has survived being swallowed by the whale. In other I-want-to-be-a-real-boy news, Minds Eye Theatre has a few days left in its smart, stinging take on Del Shores' Southern Baptist Sissies, their second recent gay-themed show but the first you've actually had a chance to see. The other the two-couple relationship drama Same Time, Next Year was canceled on the eve of opening night, just after Samuel French got all cease-and-desisty upon learning that Minds Eye had, without changing a single line of dialogue, made one of the couples gay.
That this should be a controversy demonstrates the deep necessity of shows like Sissies. The story of four Texas choirboys struggling to reconcile their attraction to one another with their Baptist rearing, Sissies is a sprawling show that realizes most of its ambitions, charting real life with laughs, rage and hurt. Led by director Craig Aikman (who starred in last summer's excellent Sad Hotel), the nonprofessional cast members attack their roles, the male leads seeming to burn from within, each movingly conflicted in his many monologues, flagging only during a couple of drag-queen lip-synch numbers that don't quite come off. Kevin Eib plays a saltine-dry barfly with a Gomer Pyle voice and a master's comic timing, while William Thomas is parodic but not cruel as a preacher with Nixonian body language, leaning and creaking in that awkward way lots of these guys do when the spirit gets up in 'em.
The show runs too long but it runs true, with better jokes and richer feeling than most, and with such an openhearted treatment of the terrors of adolescence that we're glad to have stuck with them when, at the end, it comes time for these boys, too, to cut their strings.