You already know what kind of time you’ll have at Toby Dinner Theatre’s Peter Pan. If the show’s of-its-era difficulties portraying Native Americans would bother you, this production will do nothing to address that. Otherwise, if you are a fan of the classic tale of the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, you’ll not be disappointed.
This musical adaptation is the one made popular for multiple generations by the telecast with Mary Martin, as well as recently revived as Peter Pan Live! on NBC with Christopher Walken.
The top-notch ensemble at Toby’s shows no sign of being overshadowed by any previous iterations, tearing into the classic musical with aplomb. Their singing is of high quality all around, and the dancing even better; it appears that director Toby Orenstein and co-director/choreographer Mark Minnick wanted to focus on these spectacle parts of the show, because they rush through such scenes as Tinker Bell’s “I believe in fairies” resurrection and cut out the lagoon scene completely, in favor of making a full-length drumming-and-leaping showstopper out of “Ugh-a-Wug” (and keeping the show to just two acts long).
It’s disappointing, then – given that some cuts and changes were apparently allowed – that nothing was done to update the words of Sir James M. Barrie, lyricist Carolyn Leigh, et al for our less insensitive age. The NBC version changed the song “Ugg-a-Wugg” to “True Blood Brothers,” putting actual Native American words in place of the original’s stereotyped gibberish without altering the melody. NBC also avoided the usage of what is now recognized as a racial slur (i.e. the name of the Washington football team), while the poor actors at Toby’s are left to mutter those lines with a hint of embarrassment.
Those issues aside, a joyousness abounds in this Peter Pan. Katie Tyler leads the way as Wendy, cheerful, thoughtful, and completely game to go on an otherworldly adventure. Her bright take on the character allows MaryKate Brouillet to make her Peter more impetuous, demanding, and self-absorbed – utterly recognizable as a pre-teenage-boy, and all the more funny and charismatic for it. They’re ably matched by David Bosley-Richards, whose Captain Hook more than anything seems to relish getting to play the villain in a great game with some worthy opponents, rather than being motivated by actual hatred.
The ensemble is clearly enjoying themselves, which goes a long way to plastering over the show’s problems. The aforementioned omissions – particularly the rushing of Tinker Bell’s scene, wherein the directors seemed to assume that we’d all just want to clap once or twice and move on – contribute to the show’s thinner emotional quality. There’s nothing wrong with taking a fun-over-depth approach here, but it’s a pity that some of those subtler moments become so perfunctory along the way.
As well, all the cast’s energy can’t hide some of awkwardness of presenting this show in the round (as the stage at Toby’s requires). Set designer David A. Hopkins does a great job overall in this regard (aided by a crack team of stage assistants who move set pieces with exceptional speed and unobtrusiveness), especially with his setting of the iconic window overlooking the Darling children’s bedroom, and in creating a fantastically decorated space for the big group dance numbers. It can’t be helped, however, that the action on the pirate ship is confusing when forced to lose the mast, ship’s wheel, and other landmarks for perspective reasons. Nor can it be helped that the colorful light representing Tinker Bell – which is lovely – is often lost to view.
With any production of such a pervasive cultural touchstone, the artistic team has to decide whether to treat it as something new to explore and find fresh angles on, or as something warm and familiar. Taking the latter approach makes oodles of sense for Toby’s, and while the experience is not overwhelmingly different from watching the telecast – other than the best part, namely, getting to hear the laughter and happy reactions of the young audience members who abound at the dinner theatre – it is nonetheless, for those willing to overlook some serious issues, a quite lovely way to spend an evening.
Peter Pan by Carolyn Leigh, Morris (Moose) Charlap, Jerome Roberts et al from the play by Sir James M. Barrie . Directed by Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick . Choreographed by Mark Minnick . Featuring Katie Tyler, Jace Franco, Brian Rusk, Erica Clare, Anerson Franco, Gavin Willard, RJ Pavel, Heather Marie Beck, David Bosley-Reynolds, MaryKate Brouillet, AJ Whittenberger, Jordan Moral, Scean Aaron, Chris Rudy, David James, Amanda Leigh Corbett, Jeffrey Shankle, Darren McDonald, Brook Urquhart, Anwar Thomas, Rachel Kemp, Julia Lancione . Set Design: David A. Hopkins . Costume Design: Lawrence B. Munsey & Mary Quinn . Lighting Design: Lynn Joslin . Sound Design: Mark Smedley . Stage Managers: Cree Menefee & Kate Wackerle . Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.