The waters were dark and the seaweed was an electric green, and the two-story jellyfish that slowly pulsed above our heads were a delicate lavender. A constellation of air bubbles slowly drifted past as gridded schools of fish darted about us. Their fast but focused choreography seemed borrowed from a certain festival I’d spent some time at recently; their vibrant coral colors seemed stolen from a LeRoy Neiman painting.

Wetsuits weren’t required to see these visions. A simple ticket was sufficient for the final performances of Pinocchio last weekend at the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, the smaller second stage at Raleigh Little Theatre in downtown Raleigh.

The water creatures were variants on stick and bunraku puppets, manipulated by high school students at the end of intensive five-week summer programs for acting and technical theater at RLT. Given the level of work we saw, scenic designer Rick Young, lighting designer Neil Williamson and the costume designing troika of Vicki Olson, Robin Cuevas and Christa Boyd were teaching as much by formidable example as anything else.

It’s something of a gut check for a regional theater to make their season opener a children’s theater show. If theater education didn’t have the pedigree it does at RLT, it would be a radically larger act of faith–or folly.

But former student Brendon Bradley can attest to the benefits of an RLT education: The recent graduate from NYU Tisch School of the Arts is back in town to star in Last Night at Ballyhoo, closing this weekend at the Kennedy Theater’s Hot Summer Nights festival. It hasn’t been that many summers since Bradley prowled the Gaddy-Goodwin stage as Bagheera in a standout production of The Jungalbook.

Beneath the flash of fantastic, blacklighted creatures, significant training in puppetry and commedia dell’arte was at work.

But enough with the showstoppers. Throughout Pinocchio, a troupe of fledgling actors did a number of remarkable things.

They repeatedly fooled us into thinking they were talking to one or two characters alone, when they were actually talking to us all–filling the room with robust voices newly trained for stage, without shrilling or bellowing.

They found other ages, temperaments and bodies to be in–and for the most part, they convinced us that they fit there.

They didn’t ham it up–well, almost never, anyway. Their performances were life-sized and appropriate for the room.

A cast of 25 moved smoothly and confidently through intricate crowd scenes set above and under water, in full light and in virtual darkness.

The animal characters were commendably brief and vivid, and the unobtrusive choreography of organic stage blocking–how characters move and occupy their space on stage–enhanced the rest of the performance.

Taken together, these constitute the everyday magic of the theater. The reason we don’t regularly notice them is because we’re not supposed to: The craft hides its labors even as it bears its fruits. Still, those of us who’ve been there know it takes an awful lot of training to make things look this natural, this easy.

We therefore applaud the real stars of this production: They include voice teacher Patsy Clarke, acting coach Maggie Rasnick and Rob Jenkins’ work with character development. Add movement coach Angela Kenyon Davis’ choreography, and Mary Kathryn Walston’s chorus as well. Kat Randle’s commedia dell’arte instruction was as visible as the growing-nose mask she devised for the title character.

Credit the designers mentioned at the top–and supporting crews who made the costumes, props and set. Note a conservatory and production staff too large to mention here. Then recognize director Linda O’Day Young, who pulled it all together.

They have given these children a marvelous gift: good training and practice. Since they did, the children gave the audience an equally valuable present Sunday afternoon. Its name? Good theater.

Pinocchio, a New Musical Play
* * * 1/2
Raleigh Little Theatre

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