Review of Peter Pan

By Brooks Appelbaum

Rarely has a production been so literally uneven as is the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of Peter Pan, playing through July 3. This musical, based on Sir J.M. Barrie’s play of the same name, has opening and closing scenes in a cozy 19th century children’s nursery in London. The central action, though, occurs in Neverland, Peter Pan’s island home where children never grow up. Under director and choreographer Cassie Abate, the London scenes are lovely to look at and their characters beautifully cast. However, once we get to Neverland, Abate loses her footing; both casting and design go seriously awry. And since Neverland provides the heart of the action, Abate’s failure to create its aura of eerie enchantment comes close to ruining this lovely piece.

Fortunately, Riley Costello, in the title role -- and playing a character who appears in both worlds -- comes as close to saving the evening as a single actor could. Though traditionally a woman plays Peter, Costello owns the role, and the stage, from the moment he flies through the nursery window. Compact, muscular, and charismatic, he immediately commands our confidence and wins our affections, much as he does young Wendy’s as soon as she sets eyes on him. Abate’s choice for Peter to speak in a cockney accent (the London children speak standard received British) adds to his spunk and, crucially, to our sense of him as an outsider.

For those new to the musical, Peter Pan, adapted from Barrie’s marvelous story by the great Jerome Robbins, has a delightful score: the lyrics are by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green; and the music is by Morris (Moose) Charlap and Jule Styne. We first meet young Wendy, John, and Michael Darling, their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Darling, and – significantly -- their beloved Nana, the Newfoundland dog who looks after the young ones. After the parents go out for the evening, Peter Pan flies in through the window and charms Wendy with his ardent wish to have a mother in Neverland. When the children learn that Peter can fly, he has no trouble convincing them to fly away with him to the island.

Dangers lurk in Neverland, however, even if they are humorously and fancifully portrayed. The natives, led by Tiger Lily, view Peter and his Lost Boys as their enemies; and even more perilously, Captain Hook, ruling a band of pirates, hates Peter and is driven by the desire to kill him and all his youthful followers.

Neverland is not actually frightening, but the script implies a kind of mysterious, otherworldly atmosphere, and here is where Abate loses one opportunity after another in guiding her design team. Set Designer Tim Brown represents trees and other structures with flat, two-dimensional planks painted in bright, primary colors of green, blue, and orange. This, combined with garish lighting (designed by Chuan-Chi Chan), makes Neverland look more like a circus set than like the kind of creepy, shadowy forest that would make young boys long for a watchful mother.

Similar problems extend to the casting in Neverland, as well. Tiger Lily (Annie Wallace) is unusually tall and robust, with a distinctly American musical theater aura. And Lisa Loen (Costume Designer) has dressed her more like Wonder Woman than like the earthy leader of a native tribe. The Lost Boys are winning and athletic as a group, but to see little girls playing Lost Boys -- when Peter insists to Wendy, early on, that girls are far too intelligent to wind up in Neverland -- is distracting.

Most distracting of all is Terrence Mann, who, as Captain Hook, gives a performance that defies comprehension. On numerous occasions he seemed to find himself so amusing that he came completely out of character, bursting into giggles, and at one point proclaiming, “Well, it’s my show!” In fact, Peter Pan is not Hook’s show, much less Mann’s. And certainly the hard-working and committed actors in this production deserve more respect, as does the material and the audience. Whether adult or child, we want to believe not only in this magical story, but also in the magic of theater itself. Mann’s shenanigans break into this belief and demonstrate either an astounding lack of professionalism or an astounding professional arrogance.

Happily, Abate knows her way around the London scenes of Peter Pan, both in terms of directing her design team, and casting and directing her actors. The nursery is a cozy place, with lavender striped wallpaper and soft lighting, and we can see why Peter has been drawn there to listen to fairy stories and dream of having a mother of his own. As Mrs. Darling, Alex Zeto has a lovely voice and just the right combination of allure and maternal warmth. As Mr. Darling, Mann hits all the right notes of childish bravado. Animating Nana from inside an oversized, four-legged puppet, Sean Ormond creates a loveable, believable character beneath a pile of fur.

Wendy, John, and Michael especially shine. Maggie Bera, as Wendy, has just the right combination of starry-eyed awe and motherly poise, and she sings beautifully without losing the character of a young girl. Troyer Coultas brings confidence and panache to the role of young John, and Atticus L. Burrello, as Michael, is a pint-sized spark plug.

Costello’s Peter creates strong bonds with everyone throughout the production, but he is never warmer or more sparkling than in these scenes with the children. He demonstrates that a true star gives generously to his fellow actors; and we, like Wendy, would follow him straight out of the window, “second to the right, and straight on, ‘til morning.”

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