Pinocchio has come to Mount Vernon, and casting producers take note: The young man who gives us the most recent interpretation of this old children's tale is a star well worth wishing upon.

Pinocchio, as staged by the Mount Vernon Children's Theatre, stars 10-year-old Stephen Arner. Stephen pulls off the mendacious wooden head in a way that is greedy, hedonistic -- and very appealing.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the story. Master Gepetto (Scott Barber) creates the wooden marionette Pinocchio to fill his longing for a son. Then enters the Blue Fairy (Jennifer Marson), who gives life to Gepetto's creation. But Pinocchio, an unreconstructed liar who seems to have little capacity for gratefulness, immediately turns on Gepetto.

Old Gepetto, as many a doting parent would, is constantly forgiving Pinocchio's transgressions, seeing in him the hints of humanity he needs to become a "real boy."

But the Blue Fairy is no dummy, and she assigns the bespectacled Cricket (Sarah Hougen) to act as Pinocchio's "conscience."

Miss Hougen's Cricket has the sorely-tried-big-sister routine down pat, and takes on the conscience assignment with an exasperated sigh. "Ding dong," she chirps whenever Pinocchio goes astray.

"Ding dong, ding dong!" echoes the audience -- a kid-crammed group that was at least as fun as the play itself.

Discounting the ding dongs (and of course, the famous nose-growing scenes), Pinocchio goes sailing toward life's wrong choices, starting by selling his schoolbooks to watch a puppet show. This is one of the play's cleverest bits, using five well-choreographed extras as "puppets" and a straight-faced Gypsy (Lauren Hoenig) to pantomime the string pulling.

After the puppets peter out, Pinocchio's guilt overtakes his greed. He is convinced he can recoup his losses and repay his father by following two wily and deliciously wicked con men (Michelle Westphal and Andrew Utter) to "Pleasure Island," a land of doughnut trees and endless games.

Here, Pinocchio witnesses another cast-filling scene -- a parade of clowns and acrobats. Here, too, he fails in his quest to become a real boy. Real boys, along with wooden-headed puppets, turn into donkeys on Pleasure Island, and are sold to the circus.

Using a sudden streak of humanitarianism we didn't know we had in him, Pinocchio tries to save another boy on the island -- an act that earns him the kudos of the dazzling Blue Fairy. But she has one final test for her pupil: She sends him to the perils of the ocean deep, where he must try to save Gepetto and Cricket from the stomach of a whale.

It's enough to turn anyone into a real boy, and Pinocchio's pleasure at both surviving the peril and claiming his authenticity is equalled only by Gepetto's pleasure at having a real son.

The audience, meanwhile, gets its pleasure by having a real children's theater in a neck of the woods that sees little of this sort of entertainment. This is only the second production by a group that cheerfully admits to being "strictly amateurs," and things like lighting, cues and music tapes are still a little shaky.

Under Kathy Herr, a director borrowed from Children's Theatre of Arlington, the kid-filled cast rises above the group's infant status and delivers a play that is coherent and entertaining.

Though awkward in spots, the play shows many bright touches -- the clever design of Pinocchio's costume that allows his transformation to donkeyhood, for instance, and the decision to cast the police constable as a woman. These show the group's essential creativity and possibilities and, like Gepetto, we have hopes for its future.

"Pinocchio," performed by the Mount Vernon Children's Theatre, at Heritage United Presbyterian Church, 8503 Fort Hunt Road, Alexandria, on April 3 at 7:30 p.m., April 4 and 5 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $2.50 for adults, $1 for children. Reservations recommended; call 780-5813.