Hopping and jiving in Imagination Stage’s performance space right now is P. Nokio, a hip-hop–imbued reimagining of the classic tale of Pinocchio. This engaging show was originally commissioned in 2012 and came out to rave reviews. P.Nokio is one of three commissioned works from Psalmayene 24 (Psalm) that make up his Children’s Hip-Hop Trilogy. Zomo Rabbit: A Hip-Hop Creation Myth and Cinderella: The Remix complete the trilogy, lauded with multiple grants and two Helen Hayes Award nominations.
Psalm wrote the book and lyrics for P.Nokio, with music by Nick “the 1da” Hernandez. The theme stays true to the classic with lessons of honesty, responsibility, consequence, and sacrifice. Carlo Collodi’s original Pinocchio, first published in 1883, has always been viewed as one of the deeper and harsher children’s stories, even after Disney turned it into a fairytale. But Psalm and Hernandez give the old story an upgrade to the 21st century with sick beats, fresh rhymes, and a technologic reboot.
G.Petto, played by Frank Britton, is a lonely, hardworking designer in the land of Hip-Hopia. He has been crafting a new, remarkably realistic game character, P.Nokio, his pride and joy, to present to his boss, the Machine Master, played by Shubhangi Kuchibhotla. And yes the Machine Master is as dubious as she sounds.
But the gracefully gritty Graffiti Fairy (Alana Sherri) has other plans in mind and plucks P.Nokio (Tre’mon Kentrell Mills) from the computer screen and into real life. G.Petto, despite the loss of his prized work and the threat of losing his job, is overjoyed to have a son and playfully raps about all the amazing things he’s going to teach P.Nokio, with a call-and-response chorus, “When I Say Father You Say Son,” that hypes the audience, encouraging the kids to sing out.
There are many such interactions, where the actors reach to the audience for reactions, a fun and effective way to keep the young theatergoers actively engaged, while also releasing some of the antsy energy little kids store up while sitting through a show.
P.Nokia discovers that living in the real world is much more complicated than the 2-D realm. He isn’t a puppet as in the original. He’s a digital boy, and quickly learns that what is bad for electronics is also bad for him (read: water makes him glitch).
But there are also temptations he has never seen before. As in the classic, P.Nokio ventures off to school, money entrusted from G.Petto in hand, but strays from the path and meets the deceitful Fox (Brendon Schaefer) and Cat (Shubhangi Kuchibhotla), who time and again attempt to trick naive P.Nokio to get his coins.
Despite the good faith of G.Petto and guidance from the feisty Graffiti Fairy, P.Nokio always finds himself in trouble. But that is part of the fundamental lessons of the tale. Life can be hard and we often do the wrong things. Yet, it is how we react and grow in those failings that truly shape who we are.
Director and Choreographer Tony Thomas has done an excellent job weaving in free and funky moves that blur the lines between blocking and dancing, as the show floats freely from scene to scene. The cast is small but mighty indeed and a treat to watch, solidly executing the movement and rapping with flair.
Imagination Stage’s remount of P.Nokio is as fun and new as the first time around. The show is wonderfully engaging for the kids, and a hit with parents as well, with originality in the execution of such a well-known fairy tale.
P.Nokio puts a modern face on an old tale, with a killer hip-hop soundtrack and wicked dance moves, and inspires the audience to get up and dance. But, more important, to always do your best. And when that doesn’t work, look to the ones who love you. And then dig in and do better.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
P.Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical runs through March 27, 2022, at Imagination Stage, located at 4908 Auburn Ave, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($28), call the box office at 301-280-6060 or purchase online. Best for ages 5 to 11.
COVID Safety: Ticket holders ages 5 and older must provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination and, for ages 18 and older, photo ID for all performances. All patrons are required to wear masks while in the building. Imagination Stage’s complete COVID-19 Safety Precautions are here.
P.Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical
Book and Lyrics by Psalmayene 24
Music by Nick “tha 1da” Hernandez
Directed and Choreographed by Tony Thomas
Cast: Frank Britton (G. Petto/Honeycage/Traveler #1), Shubhangi Kuchibhotla (Machine Master/Cat/Skelly/ Traveler #2), Tre’mon Kentrell Mills (P.Nokio), Brendon Schaefer (Crony/Fox/Fork), Alana Sherri (Graffiti Fairy/Dance Captain)
Creative Team: Janet Stanford (Producing Artistic Director), Nick Hernandez (Music Director), Shartoya Jn.Baptiste (Scenic Designer), Ashlynne Ludwig (Costume Designer), Max Doolittle ( Lighting Designer), Justin Schmitz ( Sound Designer), Jerran Kowalski (Projections Designer), Holden Gunster (Props Designer/Builder), Becky Reed (Stage Manager)
P.Nokio Production Staff: David Singleton (Assistant Choreographer), Helen Huang (UMD Mentor, Costume Design), Mikhail Kachman and Dan Conway (UMD Mentor, Scenic Design), Jared Mezzocchi (UMD Mentor, Projection Design), Carolyn Hampton (Cover Scenic Charge Artist), Mia DuVall (Costume Fabric Artist), Hannah Herold (Wardrobe Crew), Jessica Hagy (PA/Deck Captain/Covid Safety Manager), Darlene Richardson and Kaitlyn Sapp (Sound Engineers)
Imagination Stage Production Staff: Laura Sperling (Production Manager), Ren Brault (Interim Technical Director), Bethany Regalbuto (Master Electrician), Anna Klinger (Costume Shop Manager)