C. Austin Hill
This was my first visit to Cumberland County Playhouse (CCP), though I have heard rave reviews from theatre-goers since I came to Tennessee in 2013. The theatre is somewhat remote—Crossville is over 70 miles from Knoxville and Chattanooga, 100 miles from Nashville, and 55 miles from where I live. Why, I wondered, had nearly everyone I know been to this theatre? Would it be worth the drive? The answer to the latter is—in the case of The Perils of Pinocchio—a resounding YES! And moreover, I’d have gladly traveled further for this charming, funny, well-performed, and brilliantly directed play.
The Perils of Pinocchio, as you might expect from the title, situates itself somewhere between children’s theatre and “theatre-for-young-audiences.” The play features a mixture of local children and CCP’s resident professional (non-Equity) company. The audience on opening night—a near sellout in the 500-seat Mainstage Theatre—featured more adults than children, while the cast composition was the opposite with 5 members of the professional company and 29 children ranging in age from 4-18. The Perils of Pinocchio is a remounting of a 1963 production by CCP’s founder Paul Crabtree, though the show has been extensively re-worked for this production with new orchestrations and lyrics by Ron Murphy.
Director Weslie Webster, who is CCP’s Education Director, did a masterful job of managing the large cast—but more than that, guiding them (children and pros alike) into a retelling of the Pinocchio story that felt fresh, crisp, and original. To make Pinocchio’s familiar story feel new is no mean feat, but Webster accomplished this through playful staging, a brisk pace, and some phenomenally talented youngsters.
12 year-old Sophie Burnett as T. Picket Ficket (the cricket), was superb. She was a personable and relatable host with a tremendous voice. She immediately captured the hearts of the audience, and certainly had my co-critics (my 11 year-old and 13 year-old children who accompanied me) singing along with her. 9 year old Chavin Medina was a delightful Pinocchio—charming and lovable, with just the right amount of mischief. The relationship between Burnett and Medina was lovely—a true testament to Webster’s directing chops.
The cast overall was terrific. Of particular note were Chaz Sanders as Cat and Donald Frison (who also provided the excellent and fun choreography for the show) as Fox. This devious duo produced a perfect mixture of menace and charm, and it was easy to see why Pinocchio might be taken in by their antics. Also notable was Lindsey Maples for her hilarious “Chenowith-ian” turn as the Blue Fairy, Darbi Banegas as the domineering Queen of the Sea, Liam Velker’s groin-attacking Punchinello, and Quinn Cason’s relatable, and endearing Gepetto (and his tremendous singing voice). And I would be remiss if I failed to mention 4th grader Taylor Dearman’s performance as the most adorable Starfish I’ve ever seen on stage.
The scenic design by Joe Varga comes from CCP’s 1988 production of the play, and is spectacularly preserved (CCP does a brisk scenery rental business) and beautiful. Complimented by lighting design by Sandra “Sam” Hahn, well-executed projections by John Fionte, and perfect story-book costumes by Renee Luttrell, Varga’s set bridges the gap between the rustic theatre and Pinocchio’s fairy tale world.
If I have a quibble with this production, it’s that the framing device of a family bedtime story seemed unnecessary, and it frequently conflicted with a voice-over narrator. I couldn’t tell if that narrator was meant to be the mother speaking to her children, or if it was an omnipotent voice…at one point the narrator was heard while the mother was on stage—a fact I found oddly sloppy in an otherwise extremely tight play.
All told, though, I loved The Perils of Pinocchio, and so did my kids. I find it remarkable that this production managed to entertain my 11 and 13 year-olds—who so frequently can’t be bothered to look up from their phones. We all giggled, and sang, and grinned throughout the play’s 105 minute run-time. Maybe giggled isn’t exactly right—many times we laughed right out loud.
About the Cumberland County Playhouse: The Cumberland County Playhouse, founded in 1965 by community leaders led by Broadway veterans Paul and Mary Crabtree, is the only rural Major Cultural Institution as designated by the Tennessee Arts Commission and the only non-profit professional performing arts resource in rural Tennessee. The Playhouse is committed to the arts as an indigenous, homegrown part of rural America and has helped to transform Crossville into a thriving cultural hub over the past 50 years. In a region vastly under-served with other arts opportunities, the Playhouse provides over 350 performances and 1200 classes in theatre, dance and music annually. Recognized as a top attraction by the state tourism office, The Tennessee State Museum and Governor Bill Haslam, the CCP has welcomed over 100,000 visitors each year on average since 1965, and is home to two indoor and two outdoor stages. Family roots in the Playhouse still hold strong; current board, supporters and volunteers represent many founding families, and the organization has been managed by two generations of Crabtrees, all serving over 5 million visitors since the 1965 opening. View more information and photos at link: www.dropbox.com/sh/rvnma2c9b65tozc/AAAaUYEoXPvXg-RpypcM_Lowa?dl=0. Website: www.CCPlayhouse.com.
The Perils of Pinocchio, September 25th- October 31st
Be a part of the magic that lit the fire in 1963! This new production of Paul Crabtree’s classic musical fantasy will feature kids, teens and members of the professional Playhouse acting company, along with amazing new special effects and a live orchestra.