Akron in the 1930s is the colorful setting for Ballet Excel Ohio’s (BXO) latest original ballet, Pinocchio: The Magical Marionette of Summit County, which follows the adventures of the little wooden puppet who turns into a real boy.
Why this era and why Akron? The city was a toy-manufacturing capital of the world during the 1930s with several major toy companies. Some focused on rubber dolls while others manufactured marbles that were exported all over the world.
Choreographer Erich Yetter has placed his dance version of the endearing Pinocchio children’s story not only in Geppetto’s workshop, but also in an Akron toy factory, where dancers in Rosie the Riveter-type getups can't keep up with the demands of a villainous big boss Monstro, portrayed by a huge puppet.
Yetter enjoyed his research into Akron’s toy-making history, which was a natural extension of its rubber-making fame. His young cast features six adorable young dancers playing rubber Shirley Temple dolls in curly wigs and polka dot dresses, based on popular dolls that were made in Akron.
BXO, a pre-professional company celebrating its 40th year, will perform the new ballet with its bevy of lively characters in three shows March 5 and 6 at the Akron Civic Theatre.
In this story, Geppetto creates the wooden puppet Pinocchio and prays he’ll become a real boy. The Blue Fairy and her attendants bring Pinocchio to life, although he’s still a wooden boy, with dancer Wade Mesecar wearing wood-looking tights and stretch fabric on his arms and legs.
A green cricket is transformed into Pinocchio’s Conscience, taking the form of a girl (Emma Oplinger) in a green dress who becomes his companion. As they head to school, they’re sidetracked by the Fox and the Cat (Megan Linnen and Joni Allen), who entice them into the bustling streets of Akron. He’s kidnapped by a terrible puppet master and ends up learning that when he lies, his nose begins to grow.
Pinocchio and Conscience have other adventures dancing in a speakeasy and end up in Monstro’s Toy Factory, where he is reunited with Geppetto. More danger as well as acts of bravery ensue, followed by a happy ending.
“Pinocchio is a basic story of coming of age, of making the right choices. He doesn’t go to school and he’s found out and he tells a lie,” so his nose grows, Yetter said. “The moral is tell the truth — do what you are supposed to do.”
Yetter cast Mesecar as Pinocchio because “he has a very lanky body, very loose,” he said. “He’s like a young colt. He doesn’t quite have control of his limbs yet but they’ve got a lot of flexibility. … He’s like a string puppet.”
The highly expressive Oplinger, he said, is a natural actor: “She’s perfect for the role of the cricket. She’s got the energy of a little bug.”
Choreographer Yetter teaches at Nan Klinger Excellence in Dance, where BXO is based, as well as at Case Western Reserve University and at the Cleveland School of the Arts.
He based the ballet’s speakeasy on the Green Turtle, a popular nightspot on Howard Street in the 1930s.
BXO will perform the new ballet with about 15 teens from YEPAW (Youth Excellence Performing Arts Workshop), who will play balladeers in Act II, singing the a cappella spiritual Hear Our Prayer, by local composer Chuck Myricks. They also will dance with the ballet troupe in the speakeasy scene.
“The Green Turtle was an integrated club [in the ’30s] so it was kind of a novelty for the time,” Yetter said.
“I just picked and chose some kinds of adventures that he had and then modified them to fit into 1930s Akron,” Yetter said.
Cuyahoga Falls business owner Bob Peyak also will make a cameo as fearsome puppet master Mangiafuoco. The over-the-top theatrical puppet representing Monstro is made by Sandra Blankenship, the aunt of dancer Jade Blankenship.
Also on the program will be Four Decades of Dance: A Tribute to Nan Klinger, which choreographer Tom Gold created to feature highlight 40 years of original ballets made for the company, which started out under the late Nan Klinger as the Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet. BXO alumna Noelle Boyages will open the ballet in Nan’s Vision, followed by vignettes from more than four decades including Gold’s Seasoning, Beauty and the Beast and Nansense; James Sewell’s Spirit of the Cuyahoga, Miss Spider’s Tea Party and Carnival of Animals; Michael Vernon’s Ida’s Flowers; and Francis Patrelle’s American Vignettes and Empty Pot.
BXO alumni Dustin True and Laurie Nielsen will also make appearances, as will guest dancer Jordan Lefton.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj or follow her on Twitter @KerryClawsonABJ.