Patchwork ‘Pinocchio’ is children’s theater’s first new show in 20 years _lowres

Photo by Kelly Fouchi -- The Patchwork Players: Greg Stratton with banjo; in front, Gary Rucker and Chrissy Decker; top from left: Shelley Rucker, Joe Seibert, and Mike Harkins.

After more than 30 years entertaining local families, Patchwork Players introduces its first original script in over two decades — a creative retelling of the story of the world’s favorite little wooden boy, Pinocchio.

The show plays July 6-12 at the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts in Kenner.

“My father wrote eight scripts in 10 years, and then he just stopped,” said Patchwork’s director, Jessica Podewell, whose late father, Buzz Podewell, founded the group in 1984. “He said he just didn’t have another one in him.”

For 20 years, the Patchwork Players, who now include Gary Rucker, Greg Stratton, T. Joe Seibert, Chrissy Decker, Stephen Eckert Shelley Rucker and Mike Harkins, rotated through the eight shows.

“We do two different performances every summer,” explains co-artistic director Gary Rucker, who has been with the Patchwork Players for 16 years. “So every four years, we’d be back to the same shows again. “Thankfully, because the Patchwork style includes a lot of improvisation and references to current events, even the same shows are always taking on a new life.”

After Buzz Podewell’s death in March 2013, however, Rucker and Jessica Podewell began looking at adding a new title to the lineup.

A call was made to local comedic writer, director and actor Ricky Graham.

“He has this wacky, fun sense of theater that I thought would be a great fit for us,” Podewell said.

Just as Pinocchio’s title character undergoes his own struggle to become “real,” Podewell said all of the players had a hand in making sure this latest production had that authentic Patchwork feel.

“All of Ricky’s stuff was phenomenal,” Podewell said. “We just took it and had a blast tweaking it to find those Buzzy bits that make it Patchwork.”

Those bits include plenty of jokes for kids and adults, along with a lot of audience participation.

“We pull kids out of the audience to play the marionettes in Stromboli’s theater, and the rough boys and girls on Pleasure Island who turn into donkeys,” Rucker said. “There’s even a part where Pinocchio jumps into the water and the whole audience becomes the fish.”

Rucker notes that one child in each show will be chosen to play Jiminy Cricket. “That child is pretty much in the entire play,” he said.

After playing typical male leads like Aladdin and Hansel, Rucker said Pinocchio has given him a chance to try something new.

“I play the fox,” he said, “which means I have this string of bad jokes that are really funny. It’s fun to play a different kind of character and have the freedom to just have a great time and make the kids laugh.”

For Podewell, this latest addition is everything she wanted it to be — a fun time for all that also serves as an apt tribute to her father, the man who started it all.

“He wanted to create something where both kids and adults were free to act like kids. Something that introduced kids to theater in a way that didn’t talk down to them but instead encouraged them to be a part of the fun,” she said. “I think we’ve done that.”