If you gave “The Phantom Tollbooth” some footlights and a contract with Def Jam Recordings (with a G-rating requirement), you might end up with entertainment as inspired and quirky as “P.Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical.” Sure, the latest Imagination Stage world premiere riffs on the so-well-known-it’s-been-Disneyfied story of Pinocchio, the temptation-prone puppet with the telltale growing nose. But playwright Psalmayene 24 doesn’t settle for a bland rehash: He imbues his story with so many cheekily precocious allusions and such a modern pulse that his characters might as well be break dancing their way to “Tollbooth’s” Dictionopolis.
And, as is the case with Norton Juster’s classic, there’s a wholesome moral in “P.Nokio,” which is one of two new children’s shows at local venues about kids learning integrity. Over at the Kennedy Center, the dance-theater piece “The Wings of Ikarus Jackson” features a hero who struggles to accept his own feathery defining trait. Meanwhile, P.Nokio grows to understand the value of school, truth-telling and family bonds.
As he demonstrated with “Zomo the Rabbit,” which Imagination Stage premiered in 2009, Psalmayene 24 has a flair for folding fairy-tale wonder into an infectious hip-hop vibe. As the director of “P.Nokio,” as well as its writer and star, he repeats the trick, teleporting us to the realm of Hip-Hopia, where people pay bills in street credits and boomboxes can be the size of city blocks.
One of Hip-Hopia’s residents is G.Petto (James J. Johnson), a computer game designer who creates a screen-transcending animated child named P.Nokio. Sent off to attend the Old School, P.Nokio willfully wanders past a Fork in the road (a silver-clad Katy Carkuff plays the texting-obsessed Fork) into the Forest of Fraudulent Fun, where he is bamboozled by con artists Fox Madoff (Jacob Yeh) and Cat Burgler (Carkuff). (The fox’s surname is just one of the tongue-in-cheek allusions that the show’s dialogue and witty rap numbers let fly. Keep an ear out for references to “Singin’ in the Rain,” Rihanna’s hit song “Umbrella,” the letter-fromNigeria phishing scam and more.) Further naughtiness in Gullible Lane saddles P.Nokio with donkey ears, but all ends happily, thanks to the intervention of the rapping, spray-painting Graffiti Fairy (Paige Hernandez) and, more important, P.Nokio’s real love for G. Petto.
These adventures unspool on a set, designed by Ethan Sinnott, that’s an arrangement of blue graffiti and doorways topped with video screens that relay images of P.Nokio’s lengthening nose. The zippy visuals complement the energy of the performances, including Psalmayene 24’s turn as the innocently enthusiastic P.Nokio, and Hernandez’s hilariously deadpan portrait of the Fairy. (Hernandez also choreographed the hip-hop-flavored dance numbers, set to catchy music by Nick Hernandez.)
Johnson’s G.Petto is sweetly nerdy, and Yeh, who appears in several roles, is particularly diverting as the Machine Master, a sneering computer-game magnate who swans around in gold chains and a mink coat — Kendra Rai designed the droll costumes — ordering employees such as G.Petto to turn out games that are safely derivative. “The trick is to duplicate whatever sold well before!” he snaps.
Set beside “P.Nokio’s” wit and exuberance, “The Wings of Ikarus Jackson” feels light, slow and underwritten. Admittedly, director and choreographer Devanand Janki and playwright Jerome Hairston are aiming for a more poetic and nuanced tone with their collaboration, an adaptation of Christopher Myers’s book “Wings.” The production does offer some narrative: the tale of a budding friendship between a lonely, young girl named Cris (Lynette Rathnam) and Ikarus (Andreu Honeycutt), who’s so embarrassed by the feathered pinions sprouting from his back that he hides them inside a backpack.
But the show is also an evocation of urban life, spotlighting the contrasting physicality of city-dwellers — a high-stepping power walker (S. Lewis Feemster), a hopscotch-playing girl (a dynamic Felicia Curry), a crotchety, stooped old lady (Neville Braithwaite) and others — in an orange-toned cubist metropolis (Meghan Raham designed the set and costumes). The storytelling sometimes drags, but there’s piquancy in the movement, which includes a fight waged through hip-hop dance, a taxi ride chronicled with swaying bodies and a dream sequence in which schoolchildren move in seemingly weightless slow-mo after their teacher (Mark Hairston) lectures on gravity. (The play’s art-rock-inflected score was composed by R. MacKenzie Lewis.) A little of this kinetic lyricism goes a long way, but with a 45-minute running time and an unobjectionable message about kindness and diversity, “The Wings of Ikarus Jackson” can hardly test anyone’s patience too sorely.
Wren is a freelance writer.
written and directed by Psalmayene 24; lighting design, Andrew F. Griffin; sound, Nick Hernandez; videography and animation, Erik Trester with Michael Todd. 90 minutes. Recommended for ages 4 and up. Through March 11 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.
adapted by Jerome Hairston from Christopher Myers’s book “Wings.” Music by R. MacKenzie Lewis; direction and choreography, Devanand Janki; lighting design, Dan Covey; sound, Chris Baine; properties, Dreama J. Greaves; associate choreographer, Cyana Paolantonio. 45 minutes. Recommended for ages 6 and up. Through Feb. 23 at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.