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Reprinted with permission from the Record-Journal

Enjoy, 07/27/2000, Page: A08

A new take on 'Pinocchio'
By Amanda Savio, Record-Journal staff

MERIDEN - This summer, Rene Pfister is part director, part mediator, part parent.

The mediator-parent part usually comes during rehearsal breaks for KidzArtz' production of "Pinocchio," an original take on the classic tale created by Pfister. However, he can hardly concentrate on the hip-hop style music of the show when some young actors are just not playing nice.

He good-naturedly breaks up the occasional disagreement among the 17 8- to 13-year-olds enrolled in the three week program, which takes place at the YMCA. There weren't too many one afternoon earlier this week, but maybe that's because the children have something a little more important on their minds: opening night Friday night.

"Pinocchio," presented by KidzArtz and the City of Meriden, will run Friday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Washington Middle School.

When one young girl complained of an injury - "Rene, blood is coming out of my Band Aid" - he solved the problem and went on to the next.

While the performers in this musical may still be in elementary and middle school, Pfister, who is a Berklee College of music graduate living in Northampton, Mass., looks at them as equal to anyone else.

"I like working with everybody," said Pfister, who is also a singer, songwriter and actor himself. "I see kids as people. I worked with kids for many years (as co-founder and director of the Young People's Theatre from 1992-1996). For the last couple of years I did touring and other things. "This fell back in my life," he said. "I love the energy of the kids." Pfister got involved with the KidzArtz program through its director, Steve Van Ness, he said. Van Ness had seen one of Pfister's other productions, a musical based on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night Dream," and was blown away.

"He made it work in a very creative way," Van Ness said.

At first, the plan was to have Pfister send the score and script down to Meriden, as he was unable to come himself. He decided he wanted to revise the script, which he wrote with his friend Jim Ballard, and changed his plans.

Pfister has produced his version of "Pinocchio" two other times, but said it is ever changing. He recently threw out a song and replaced it with another, because the first wasn't working. "It's important to create an environment where it's OK to mess up," he said.

"He works great with the kids," Van Ness said. "This is embodying exactly what I wanted."

When Pfister approached the story as a musical, he decided to read the book by Carlo Collodi, which he found to be much darker than the well-known Disney version. Pfister decided to bring some depth to his version.

He makes the point clear in the show that Pinocchio needs to make choices for himself, without the assistance of magic. "Its about `making choices," he said. "It's an important message for everybody. It's a lot like Harry Potter. There's a lot of stuff going on, but he has to make the decision for himself."

That's not to say it's not a fun show. There are songs inspired by everything from jazz to pop, with titles like "Sneezed Out By A Whale."

Alex Malanych, 10, gets a kick out of the songs he gets to participate in as Coachman, an evil guy who wants to capture little boys and turn them into donkeys. "I Love My Donkeys" is one of Malanych's numbers.

"They're really fun to do," he said. "They're not hard songs. They're catchy."

The children are at rehearsal from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with breaks for snack, games, lunch and swimming. Many of them are acting veterans who are used to working hard.

"I've done a lot of rehearsals like it before," said Ethan Van Ness, 8, who has been involved with the Castle Craig Players in Meriden. He is playing Coachman's sneaky sidekick, the Fox. "I'll tell you, I sleep well at night."

Alex Raup, 10, is playing the title role. He's not too nervous, he said. "I've had a lot of acting experience, and it's really easy for me."

Steven Lopez is psyched to get the chance to act. The 10-year-old is playing Gepetto. "This is my first opportunity to be a real actor," he said.

Perhaps no one works as hard Pfister, who commutes an hour and a half each way from Northampton. "There's a song called 'Gepetto's Crazy,'" he said. "Maybe that can be applied to me. But I like the excitement and chaos of it. Creativity comes from that."

Fast Facts What: "Pinocchio" Where: Washington Middle School, Meriden When: Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets: $5 Phone: (203) 235-6386

For more information, send email to Rene.