In the days of my youth I, like many of you, took the Peter Pan Pledge: “I won’t grow up, I won’t grow up/Never gonna go to school…” Regrettably, I neglected to take the Peter Pan Supplemental Pledge: “I won’t grow old, I won’t grow bald/Never gonna have a mortgage…” Thus I approach the touring production of Peter Pan, playing briefly at Wolf Trap, with the customary emotions adulthood has toward childhood: envy and regret.
Peter Pan has no sympathy for that. It is relentlessly a children’s play, with every line of dialogue seemingly followed by an exclamation point and Moose Charlap’s simple, somewhat repetitive score delivered with tub-thumping emphasis by a good orchestra, under the hand of musical director Keith Levenson. To a certain extent, the vast spaces of Wolf Trap demand such unsubtlety; it would be hard to imagine, say, Waiting for Godot done there, or, if produced, enjoyed much by the folks in the lawn chairs hundreds of feet away.
In any event, Peter Pan delivers its gifts at top volume, and is thus ideal for the six-year-old and enjoyable to the ten-year-old. Folks older than that will take their pleasures where they find them. There are some moments which hint at the melancholy which lies behind the story of the little boy who never grows older – which Mabou Mines explored with such startling success in their astonishing 2007 production) – when Peter announces that the lost boys were infants who fell out of their carriages when their nannies weren’t looking, and who were thereafter unclaimed for seven days, for example. But by and large the musical, in which Jerome Robbins superimposes music on the original J.M. Barrie script, is light, cheerful and irresistibly upbeat.
The story is so familiar that it need not be retold here, merely invoked. Here it is: mean daddy, sad mama, big dog, Wendy, John and Michael, magic flying boy, Tinkerbell (here played by a beam of light), lost boys who need a mother to tell them stories and mend their pockets, pixie dust, happy thoughts, flying, Neverland, hostile Indians who eventually become allies, hostile pirates who eventually become nemeses, Hook, Smee, crocodile who ate a ticking clock and also Hook’s hand, and who wants the rest of him, kidnapping, confrontation, bomb, homesickness, home. Remember?
One of the great pleasures of the piece is watching Cathy Rigby in the title role. There is some irony to the idea that the prepubescent boy who refuses to grow up can be played by a 58-year-old woman, but the thought doesn’t stick, so natural does Rigby’s performance seem. Rigby was famously a world-class gymnast forty years ago, and to watch her now flying on stage with the help of the nearly-invisible rigging is to get a glimpse of what gymnastics might be like if they were tried in outer space. Her Peter is twitchy with impatience, restlessly somersaulting through the air when the ten-second limitation on his attention span is violated, blunt about his desires and alternately enraged and resigned when they are frustrated. The fact that Rigby is a celebrated athlete, sportscaster, producer and spokesperson may distract us from how fine an actor she is, but she has been doing this role for twenty years, and has been nominated for a Tony for it. She gives us a clear and convincing Peter, and thus a look at how a real little boy might develop, were he bereft of parents, and given superpowers.
Peter is, in fact, the only convincingly real character in the play – the rest are caricatures and plot devices, none more so than his antagonist, the buffoonish Captain Hook (Tom Hewitt). Hewitt has won Tony and Drama Desk nominations for his work as Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and his Hook recalls Tim Curry a little bit – as well as Cyril Ritchard, the incomparable original Hook. Hook is a drama queen, and Hewitt gets every bit of that, stomping around the stage dramatically, sniffling with self-pity, choleric at the thought of Peter and the lost boys, and manic with diabolical glee over his plan to kidnap Wendy and oblige her to play mother to the entire pirate ship. He swings ineffectually at his first mate, the simpering Smee (James Leo Ryan) in frustration, and scampers away as the rouge-eyed crocodile (Clark Roberts, nicely costumed by Shigeru Yaji) hunts him down.
But, Hook or no Hook, there is no conflict in the play. The forces of evil are simply overmatched, and a little clownish to boot. Peter’s downfall is brought about not by Hook but by homesickness, which seems to afflict the lost boys all at once, and for no discernible reason other than that two hours have nearly passed, and it is time for everyone to go home.
The modern musical is a pastiche of songs hung on the framework of a story, with brief passages of dialogue to move the plot along and justify each new piece of music. But Peter Pan is decidedly old-school, having immense passages of dialogue interspersed with a few songs (there are seventeen in the two-hour production). Nearly half of the first Act is spent in having Peter tell Wendy (Krista Buccellato), John (Cade Canon Ball) and Michael (Julia Massey, a very good child actor), about the wonders of Neverland, which they in fact experience during the rest of the play.
Some of the music is only tangentially connected with the plot – but that’s o.k., since the music is an excuse for the production’s best feature, its exquisite choreography (Patti Colombo). The second Act opens with a peace treaty, reached for no visible reason between the Indians and the lost boys. The lyrics which celebrate the treaty is largely in a silly and vaguely offensive made-up Indian language (the song is called “Ugg-a-Wugg”) but the lengthy dance passage, led by Tiger Lily (the fantastic dancer Desireè Davar) is fabulous. Indeed, every time the lost boys, the Indians or the pirates (the Indians and the Pirates are played by the same men) kick up their heels, you know you will be in for a good time. The choreography is so good it will leave you wondering why the fight choreography is so lame, with the antagonists missing each other wildly and individual battles ending quickly and bloodlessly. I may be wrong, but my theory is that the production does this deliberately, as it downplays conflict generally, so as not to traumatize the kiddies.
The sets (John Iacovelli) – the children’s Victorian bedroom, Neverland, and the pirate ship – are rendered beautifully, and with unusually significant complexity for a touring production. Yaji’s costumes are vivid and attractive, and Paul Rubin’s flying sequences work as they are supposed to work. If you are a parent of young children, you can take them to this production confident that they will giggle and snort. You might get a little bored, but if you do, just sit back, watch Peter fly through the air flinging pixie dust, and remember back to the day when you never wore a serious expression in the middle of July.
Peter Pan has 4 more performances, ending Sept 4, 2011 at the Filene Center, Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia.
Original play by J.M. Barrie, originally adapted as a musical by Edward Lester and later by Jerome Robbins with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh and additional lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolf Green and music by Mark “Moose” Charlap and additional music by Julie Styne.
Directed by Glenn Casale
Produced by McCoy Rigby Entertainment, Nederlander Presentations and Albert Nocciolino, in association with Larry Earl Payton, Michael Filerman, Heni Koenigsberg and La Miranda Theatre for the Performing Arts (whew!) at Wolf Trap
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Two hours five minutes long, with one intermission
Recommended for children ages 4-10, and their loving parents
Cathy Rigby with an earlier cast