For a dark, moralistic 19th-century novel about a miserable little boy made of wood, Pinocchio remains a popular play. Part of the reason is that it's always easier to sell tickets to an established property (especially one blessed by Disney), and part of the reason is the rich theatrical possibilities of Carlo Collodi's episodic plot: the talking cricket, the donkey transformation, the escape from being swallowed at sea. Sorry, was that a spoiler?
The Children's Theatre Company didn't wait too long to remount its 2013 production of Pinocchio, and no wonder: The show is CTC at its best. Adapting and directing, Greg Banks has devised a meta-theatrical conceit that, rather than confusing kids, actually helps young viewers understand and process the strange story.
In Banks' Pinocchio, the tale is told by five painters whom the audience "surprise" in the middle of their work. Seeming to improvise everything from the story to the props, the painters give us a rousing, heartwarming time at the theater.
The production's warm, family-friendly tone centers on the always excellent Elise Langer, who makes Pinocchio exuberant and relatable. The other characters are played by Joy Dolo and CTC staples Dean Holt and Reed Sigmund, all compulsively watchable as they flow among roles. Victor Zupanc performs a live score on instruments including guitar, accordion, and saw.
The storytelling is so lucid that even when Dolo and Sigmund are playing painters playing animals playing robbers, we totally understand what's going on. (I can't entirely speak for the youngest attendees on this one, but they all seemed into it.)
Aside from the fine cast and strong narrative, a source of constant enjoyment in this Pinocchio is the set by Joseph Stanley. What looks like a random mess made by a painting crew in the middle of a job turns out to be an intricately planned funhouse of tools the cast use to tell their tale. A paint cabinet becomes a jail, a fairy flies from the scaffolding, and a shopping cart becomes a donkey wagon.
The play's format allows the actors to comment on the unfolding action — not in a snarky way, but in a way that helps kids understand how theater can affect their emotions. When the show gets a little scary, the actors debate whether they should stop; when it gets sad, Dolo takes a time-out to cry, and no one shames her for it.
When all is said and done, the cast take a quick, almost embarrassed bow and then lope offstage in their paint-stained overalls. Just another day of work for these total pros.
The Children's Theatre Company
2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis
Through August 14; 612-874-0400