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‘Pinocchio’ musical latest neighborly offering from Portage Park’s Filament Theatre

By Mary Houlihan | For the Sun-Times

As a child, Tyler Beattie loved fairy tales. A favorite was the story of Pinocchio, the tale of the wooden boy who wants to be human. He recalls, of course, the classic Disney animated version and another lesser-known one with Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman) as Pinocchio on Faerie Tale Theatre.

But while in college at Northwestern University, where he studied under the tutelage of Mary Zimmerman, Frank Galati and Paul Edwards, he discovered the original source material — “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” written in the late 1800s as a series of stories by Italian author Carlo Collodi.

“The Disney arch is there,” Beattie says. “But these stories are darker and more disturbing and also inspiring. I could see the dark and light of life in them.”

‘Pinocchio: A Folk Musical’

When: Jan. 22-March 6

Where: Filament Theatre, 4041 N. Milwaukee

Tickets: $5-$20

Info: (773) 270-1660; filamenttheatre.org

At the time, Beattie, who now writes and teaches in New York City, had just finished directing Northwestern’s Dolphin Show, the annual student musical, and was looking to do something “totally different.” So he got six actor-musician friends together and created “Pinocchio: A Folk Musical.” Now years later, the piece is being resurrected and reborn at Filament Theatre under the direction of Scott Ferguson, who previously worked with Beattie on Filament’s 2009 musical “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

While the story may appear aimed at children, the musical with its folk-inspired songs is aimed at both youngsters and their parents, says Beattie.

“I wanted the music to be heartfelt and earnest and simple,” Beattie notes. “To make it strike to the core feeling of the moment and what the little wooden boy and his father Geppetto are going through.”

The Filament cast features actor-musicians Mara Dale (piano/tin whistle), Felipe Carrasco (guitar), Kamille Dawkins (upright bass), Frank Gasparro (clarinet/saxophone), Roberto Jonson (guitar/violin) and Maddy Low (saxophone/accordion/ukulele).

“This is a collaborative process,” says Ferguson, adding the performers play multiple instruments in what is a “family friendly, homemade spectacle full of masks and puppets created by artist Jeff Semmerling.”

“Pinocchio: A Folk Musical” is just the start of Filament’s very creative 2016 season. The company moved to the Portage Park neighborhood in 2013 with a mission to respond to the needs and desires of its Northwest Side audience while continuing to push the boundaries of theater in terms of style and scope.

Before the move, the company had done a pop-up event in the neighborhood and mentioned to Alderman John Arena that they were looking for a permanent home. He encouraged them to consider Portage Park and now says: “Their consistent quality is a point of pride for Six Corners and the far Northwest Side.”

(From left to right) Kamille Dawkins, Roberto Jonson, Maddy Low, Nik Kmiecik, Mara Dale in Filament Theater’s production of “Pinocchio: A Folk Musical” | PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN LIBONATI
(From left to right) Kamille Dawkins, Roberto Jonson, Maddy Low, Nik Kmiecik, Mara Dale in Filament Theater’s production of “Pinocchio: A Folk Musical” | PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN LIBONATI

Unlike most theaters, Filament’s programming is deeply ingrained in the neighborhood and the people, who live, work and play there.

“We’ve always gotten our inspiration from what is happening around us and thinking of new ways to be relevant and finding new ways to help people see familiar things in an unfamiliar way,” artistic director Julie Ritchey says. “This carries over from when we were itinerant but now we’re able to get at it in a more meaningful and deeper way and build long-term relationships.”

One of these relationships is with restaurateur Quay Tao and his Community Tavern located across the street from Filament. In September at the restaurant, they will stage “The Van Gogh Cafe,” an adaptation of one of Ritchey’s favorite childhood books by Cynthia Rylant about a young girl whose father owns a magical cafe.

“The book is filled with magic realism vignette’s and I think inherently theatrical,” Ritchey says. “Plus Quay is such a ‘big picture’ thinker and an amazing person to collaborate with, which will make this a lot of fun to stage.” A tasting menu created by Chef Joey Beato accompanies the show.

Filament’s season continues in May with Jessica Wright Buha’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Portage Park,” which takes audience members around the neighborhood on foot and by bike to solve the mystery. Closing out the season in November is a new installment of the popular “Crossing Six Corners,” in which neighborhood written and oral histories are adapted into scenes, monologues and songs.

“The more relationships we have with community members, the wider range of stories we uncover,” Ritchey says. “This time around we’re bringing some of these storytellers on stage with us which will give this installment an exciting new angle.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.