Peter Pan, at Forest Theater, Sep 1, 2013

The boy who refused to grow up

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By Philip Pearce

My Labor Day weekend got off to a flying start with PacRep’s delightful new production of Peter Pan.

I’d seen Barrie’s story staged three times before, but never in the 1954 Mary Martin/Cyril Richard version, now on the boards and in the air at Carmel’s Outdoor Forest Theater. It’s an evening of tuneful magic, with songs by Moose Charlap, Jule Styne, Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Not to mention lead characters flying through the skies, a determinedly evil pirate villain too stupid to be scary, a canine nursemaid, a crocodile who has swallowed a clock and ticks like a time bomb, and a hero who refuses to grow up.

As Peter, the boy who crows like a rooster and flies like a swallow, Katie O’Bryan Champlin is absolutely wonderful. All swagger and bounce, she is a totally convincing rebellious boy. I loved her deft athletic antics on and above stage, the smug assurance of her laugh and the brilliant flexibility of her singing voice. Through most of the action this small dynamic brunette growls the gritty tones of a cheerful street urchin. Then, in the funniest number of the evening, she dons a makeshift veil and sidles seductively around the stage, in a riotous duet called Mysterious Lady, teasing the gullible Captain Hook with the trills and cadenzas of a grand opera diva. And she does it, somehow, in a way that convinces you that this really is a boy imitating a woman. It’s a totally winning performance.

Michael Jacobs is also a joy in the standard double roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. Suitably blustery and confused as the papa of Wendy, John and Michael, he hits his full stride as the pompous, blundering Hook, hoofing it hilariously, first in a funny sinister tango, then twirling with a stage full of pirate dance couples caught up in a wild number called Hook’s Waltz.

The night I saw the show, the doubly cast roles of the junior Darlings were played by Cameron Ritchie, artfully imitating his old man in the role of brother John; Lyle Yeatman as a young Michael always ready for candy or anything else edible and, as their sister Wendy, the charming and resourceful Claire Moorer, who deserves special praise for meeting the challenge of changing from a feisty pre-teen to a dignified grown woman in the final moments of the story.

The Outdoor Theater stage is possibly a tad too vast for the intimacy and warmth of an Edwardian British nursery. But you use the space you’ve got and can’t expect everything.

In the Second Act scenes on the island, the lost boys are lively enough but need to belt out their individual lines a lot louder to reach patrons seated, as I was, at the back of the open-air theatre. The pirate gang skulks and sings effectively, with a special nod to Jack Yeatman as the Captain’s ever hopeful and charmingly dense Cockney sidekick Smee.

Steve Costanza twice represents the animal kingdom, first as the floppy and wistful Nana in Act One and then as Hook’s slithering crocodile nemesis, tick-tocking his way across the stage to a well deserved round of applause in Act Two.

The Indian tribe is ably led by the animated and funny Gracie Poletti, who doubles as Tiger Lily and Mrs. Darling in this handsomely designed production. Driving home after the performance I asked myself why, even in productions far less satisfying than this one, I‘ve still never been able to resist Peter Pan. And I think it may be because in this script Barrie takes the ingredients of a sentimental family comedy and flatly refuses to let them get sentimental. Director Walt deFaria and Music Director Stephen Tosh have added to the 1954 score with an opening duet in which Mr. and Mrs. Darling extol their Perfect Life. I hope Tosh and deFaria are being ironic. Later popular movie and TV families like the Hardys and Bradys may always have had their catch-in-the-throat moments amid the laughs, but it’s hard to find a lot of teardrops in Peter Pan. This “perfect life” couple are, for one thing, a pair of respectable Kensington loonies who head off for a full-dress dinner leaving their three children in the care of their usual nursemaid-in-the-form-of-a-dog named Nana, who is then banished at the last minute from the nursery for leaving dog hair on Mr. Darling’s tail coat. The three children themselves are delightful and appealing, but they are no sugar plums. Wendy is a resourceful bossy-boots who could in a few years sign on as a Mary Poppins intern; John is a bookish and spectacled didact who corrects everyone’s grammar and goes to bed in a top hat; dear little Michael is a dimple-cheeked glutton. Not so surprising then that these under-supervised siblings fall easy prey to the blandishments of a cheeky, airborne anarchist who thumbs his nose at middle class values and flies them off to fight pirates and supervise a crew of young male outcasts. Even the twinky-blinky Tinker Bell we all applaud back to life is a possessive and spiteful sprite with a vinegar tongue in her little fairy head. Behind all its pretty trappings, it seems, Peter Pan is almost as revolutionary and iconoclastic as a social drama by George Bernard Shaw.

The show continues until September 29th on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2:00. Check in early for an entertaining pre-performance intro by Christopher Sullinger and his rowdy crew of stage pirates. Together they offer some rousing songs and a brief history of memorable past U.S. Peter Pan productions and stars, including Carmel’s own Jean Arthur.

Photo by Stephen Moorer.