Long before “The Book of Mormon’’ was even a gleam in the eyes of its creators, Ryan Landry was pushing the outer limits of transgression.
Landry is at it again with “Pornocchio,’’ mobilizing his Gold Dust Orphans for a satirical and musical assault on the familiar tale of a wooden puppet who wants to be a real live boy. Directed by James P. Byrne, “Pornocchio’’ showcases Grace Carney, who gives a fine performance as the winsome title character.
Even by his prolific standards, Landry has been exceptionally busy of late. “Ryan Landry’s ‘M,’ ” his adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film about a serial killer of children, wrapped up Sunday at Huntington Theatre Company. As recently as last month Landry and the Orphans were performing “Mildred Fierce,’’ starring Varla Jean Merman as the self-sacrificing mother of a monstrously narcissistic daughter, in a spoof of “Mildred Pierce,’’ the 1945 film noir.
The original version of Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century serialized “Pinocchio’’ was likewise pretty bleak (Pinocchio is hanged at the end, after undergoing brutal treatment). Even the 1940 Disney animated version of “Pinocchio’’ is far from sugarcoated. Perhaps that’s why “Pornocchio,’’ while abounding in Landry’s trademark hijinks, has a darker and more unsettling tone than most of his work with the Orphans.
After the endearingly earnest Geppetto (Scott Martino) fashions a puppet out of wood, the puppet is brought to life by the Blue Fairy, and Pornocchio’s adventures begin. The hard-drinking, coke-snorting Blue Fairy is played by the indispensable Olive Another, who is pricelessly funny, whether spelling out the difference between an alcoholic and a drunk, singing a torch song while backed by her puppet band (the Blue Fairies, natch), or barking “On your knees, termite!’’ at Jiminy Cricket.
That top-hatted gent is supposed to be Pornocchio’s voice of conscience, and a screechy, scolding, and reactionary voice he is, too, in the amusing portrayal by Brooks Braselman.
Pornocchio’s challenge is to prove that he deserves to become a real boy by avoiding temptation and staying on the right side of virtue. However, manipulated by the scheming Fox (Landry) and Cat (Robin Banks), Pornocchio ends up forced to perform in Madame Minnelli’s Traveling Porno Show (whose proprietor is played by Liza Lott, channeling that other Liza).
Here is where “Pornocchio’’ enters tricky territory. Yes, satire carries with it a broad license, and Landry uses that license even more broadly than most. Yes, Pornocchio is a puppet. But a queasy aura inevitably surrounds these scenes, given that he is repeatedly referred to throughout the show as “a little boy’’ or a “little wooden boy.’’
Landry is on firmer ground when he turns his hand to parodies of Broadway shows as diverse as “Jesus Christ Superstar’’ and “Sweeney Todd,’’ the latter featuring a chorus line in bloodstained white smocks. The buoyant choreography by Merry Death energizes “Pornocchio’’ during those moments when the show flags. Joe Bissell is stellar as Limpwick, the young fellow whose devil-may-care insouciance doesn’t prevent him from being turned into a jackass.
Martino brings his usual flair to the costume design, whether it’s the Fox’s Mad Hatter outfit or the angelic attire the cast wears for a deathbed scene built upon a surprisingly moving rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.’’ Set designers Amelia Gossett and Windsor Newton devised a clever solution for the hard-to-stage scene where Pornocchio is swallowed by a whale.
On balance, “Pornocchio’’ is not as solidly crafted as “Mildred Fierce.’’ But Landry’s sheer output continues to impress: Whether he succeeds or fails or lands somewhere in the middle, this writer-performer never seems to stop working.