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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up
By Elyse Sommer
I've periodically revisited J. M. Barrie's story of the never aging, motherless boy who transports the earthbound Darling children to Neverland with its lost boys, pirates and Indians. The awe and magic of that first encounter when I was six has since come partly from watching the wide- eyed wonder on the faces of the current crop of six to ten year olds that always represent a large portion of any Peter Pan audiences-- but also from the realization that Barrie's story, like all good fairy tales, has nuances to touch the child that remains in all of us.
Barrie's characters are rich enough to challenge directors to surprise us with a variety of treatments. The late, great Leonard Bernstein wrote the music and songs for the first musical Peter Pan in 1950. This was followed by the most widely seen musical version with Mary Martin as Peter Pan singing songs composed by Mark Charlap and Jules Styne and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. This last was probably the most widely seen Peter Pan thanks to a still available TV special after the show left Broadway's Winter Garden. Kathy Rigby took the flying fantasy to new heights in a revival of the musical that had her soar, not just to the ceiling of the Darling nursery, but clear across the entire orchestra. A few seasons ago Liza Lorwin of the Mabou Mines created a small but spectacularly imaginative Peter Pan in which a single narrator evoked the personalities of all the characters with seven puppeteers animating an adorable puppet Peter who never loses his first teeth to a deliciously quirky Captain Hook whose nemesis, the Crocodile, morphs right on stage from the cuddly dog-nursemaid, Nana.
This brings me to my most recent Peter Pan at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in which uses the 1982 adaptation by John Caird and Trevor Nunn. It combines several versions of the story with the most notable change being the presence of a Barrie-like storyteller who also doubles as Tinker Bell. This works beautifully, thanks to Bill Bowers' delightful performance which makes a virtue of camp. There's also a decidedly darker edge that taps into the realm of the pain of abandonment and the always hovering shadow of aging and death. Those familiar with Eric Hill's work will not be surprised that this production, like that of the Mabou Mines, features elements of puppetry, in this case via stunningly masked Indians.
Of course, whether a play or a musical, with or without puppetry or narrators, it wouldn't be Peter Pan without some flying. While BTF's Peter and Wendy and her brothers do gain altitude, the mechanics of that brief flight are a bit too visible and clunky to be truly magical. To offset the low-tech flying, Isadora Wolfe is a Peter Pan who leaps all over the place with great agility. While the dancing showcases her skills as a dancer, the choreography often seems more forced than magical and does not compensate for this Peter's lacking the depth and vulnerability the role calls for. Tara Franklin' gives a sensitive portrayal of the motherly Wendy, but her siblings (James Barry as John and Justina Trova as Michael) play their parts a bit too broadly to be charming. Not that broad is necessarily bad. Walter Hudson is a wonderfully over-officious Mr. Darling (nicely counterpointed by Kate Maguire's quietly fearful Mrs. Darling) as well as an amusingly campy Captain Hook with his "black curls like candles about to melt."
While this production is short on aeronautic bells and whistles the costumes by Olivera Gajic are indeed magical. If the audience were asked to vote for their favorite, it would more than like to be the life-sized crocodile, with the furry dog-nursemaid Nana (Margot E. Littlefield appearing as both) a close second. Tim Saternow's scenic design makes good use of a sheer curtain not only to create the Victorian nursery but to suggest the "upstairs" where the Indians watch over the children below. That "below" home of the Lost Boys is introduced in a fun scene that has the boys swooping down a slide.
Rather than a dancing Peter Pan, I wish Mr. Hill had addressed Barrie's wish to have a real little boy play the title role rather than stick to the traditional female Peter. Overall though, while the costumes are enchantingly elaborate, Hill has followed the spirit of the author's instruction to have all the actors "wear a child's outlook on life as their only important adornment." Audiences, whether six or sixty, need to bring that outlook to Stockbridge -- if possible, with a six to ten-year-old in tow.
LINKS TO OTHER PETER PANS REVIEWED AT CurtainUp:
Peter and Wendy a marvelous adaptation (and probably my all-time favorite) by Mabou Mines seen a few seasons ago at New York's best family theater, the New Victory
Peter Pan Broadway musical, with detailed background notes on the story's background and stage history.
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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