J.M. Barrie’s character Peter Pan caught the world’s imagination right from his first appearance in his novel The Little White Bird. That book was a fictionalized account of his relationship with, and the stories he invented for, the sons of his ailing friend, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (whose name he changes to Darling). This relationship is familiar to those who have seen the three-hanky 2004 movie Finding Neverland, which starred Johnny Depp as Barrie. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Peter Pan section of The Little White Bird was expanded into a play and then into a novel. He continued to revise it many times thereafter, but Peter belonged to the world.
Countless versions have ensued and still appear. Peter and the Starcatcher won the Tony Award in 2012 and will play as part of Lexus Broadway Series at AT&T Performing Arts Center in September. Cathy Rigby, refusing to go quietly into that good night, is still flying around the country in the most famous musical version of the story, with music by Mark Charlap and Jule Styne. Even Finding Neverland is being developed into a musical. Into this muddled milieu, the Dallas Theater Center’s own Peter Pan, Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty, brings a completely new take on “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” (as the original play is subtitled) to the innovative Dee and Charles Wyly Theater.
Fly, as this new work is called, is the brainchild of three-time Tony Award-winning producer-turned-director Jeffrey Seller, who brought us Rent, Avenue Q and In the Heights. The book is by Rajiv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Gruesome Playground Injuries), who also worked on the lyrics with Kirsten Childs (The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin), and music by Bill Sherman. A large cast of adults and children, including a real boy as Peter, opened the show to enthusiastic audiences on Friday after nearly two weeks of previews.
Much of the Barrie play remains. This is a tale about leaving childhood behind and, in a greater sense, the aging process itself. Hook alone fears the ticking clock as all of the other residents of Neverland remain in an eternal time loop created by forgetting yesterday. In Fly, Wendy says early on “It’s real, yet it’s make-believe.” That sums it up.
Key elements have been omitted. There is nary an American Indian lurking, so no Tiger Lily to say “ugg,” which is always a problem now in our PC-minded world. Nana, the lovable Newfoundland pooch has also been jettisoned. Peter is never separated from his shadow so Wendy doesn’t keep it in a drawer to sew it back on. (Didn’t you always wonder about what happens to a shadow kept in a dark drawer?). The ticking crocodile doesn’t exist, but rather has become a myth that Hook tells himself and crew to hide his embarrassment that Peter cut off his hand.
One of the Darling children has already vanished to Neverland (and the parents aren’t seen in this version). The Mermaid Lagoon becomes the Black Swamp, although it is just as dangerous. But alas and alack (unlike with the Charlap/Styne version), we don’t get to yell “I believe in Fairies” to save Tinker Bell, no matter how delicious that would have been. Flying is accomplished by forgetting everything instead of the requisite fairy dust of the original.
This last change is somewhat bothersome in that the fairy dust was added by Barrie to stem an alarming tide of mishaps. As he said in his dedication to the published version:
...after the first production I had to add something to the play at the request of parents (who thus showed that they thought me the responsible person) about no one being able to fly until the fairy dust had been blown on him; so many children having gone home and tried it from their beds and needed surgical attention.
Fairy dust aside, flying is accomplished in Fly, and quite handsomely by flight director Pichon Baldinu (off-Broadway’s De La Guarda). Unlike in the musical in which Weatherford native Mary Martin debuted in the title role, Fly makes no attempt to hide the wires that transport the children aloft. No, in fact, we have thick cables with huge clasps that come from mountain climbing and rappelling catalogs. And why not? In the absence of fairy dust, children must know that it takes more than forgetting to get aloft. It takes heavy duty equipment.
What remains is true to Barrie’s original plot. Peter (Grant Venable) takes Wendy (Isabela Moner) and John (Austin Karkowsky) to Neverland where they battle the pirates. Tinker Bell (in this version simple called Tink, played by Morgan Weed) is jealous of Wendy. Peter is victorious, but isn’t necessarily the hero. The three Darling children realize that they have to grow up and return to Kensington Station. The Lost Boys go with them. Peter stays and visits Wendy years later and, as the final curtain falls, flies off as he takes her daughter on a similar adventure.
In Fly, Neverland has an African, maybe Haitian or Afro-Caribbean, feel to it. Sherman’s music, which makes extensive use of drumming both on stage and in the pit, adds to this atmosphere. Sinewy female dancers in minimal garb, drawn from the Dallas Black Dance Theatre as well as other outstanding companies, act much as the kuroko do in a Japanese Noh drama—visible yet “invisible” stagehands doing all sorts of duties such as moving sets and hooking up the flying mechanisms. In the program, they are listed as being “trees,” although there is nothing about them to suggest that and these superb dancers are ever rooted for an instant.
In fact, all of the dancing is outstanding. Andy Blankenbuehler’s nonstop choreography is flavored with hip-hop and African traditions and a combination of street and formal studio. Barre and barrio, if you will. All the children playing the Lost Boys are as good as the adult dancers (also including Jace Duncan as Nibs, Sam Poon as Tootles, Campbell Walker Fields as Foo and Lauren Santana as Twins). In the big production numbers, you are presented with a viewing challenge, since your eye keeps getting drawn first to one and then to another. The wiry and blond competition dancer, Duncan usually wins the attention competition and they finally give him a solo spot.
This is an ensemble show that requires excellence from everyone on and off stage and this cast and crew deliver on all fronts. Many in the cast have extensive Broadway and national tour credits, even the youngest of the children; yet with Seller’s careful direction, no one steals the show although all have memorable moments.
Moner, as Wendy, has a list of credits from Broadway’s Evita to McDonald commercials. There is little of the “pretend mom” left from Barrie’s original, so she is free to be a girl on a boy’s adventure. On Friday, her singing voice bordered on strident with the long held notes, but this may have been due to the remarkably subtle amplification catching an overtone and not repeated as the run continues.
As Peter, Venable delivers on Barrie’s cocky devil-may-care boy brimming with braggadocio. He is not helped by his hairdo; one supposes it is a Mohawk in the process of growing out, which has an unfortunate resemblance to Lucy’s topknot of curls in the famous sitcom rather than a mop on a ragged and unkempt boy. That aside, he brings a cornucopia of talents as he sings, dances, fences, flies, mopes, brags and boasts his way through the role; blithely ignoring every good piece of advice he gets.
Bradly Dean, who was recently a standout in Casa Mañana’s Camelot, with considerable help from Joseph’s clever dialogue, manages to create a complex character out of Captain Hook. A far cry from the bewigged caricature that usually struts around, this Hook ponders his fate “I am full of melancholia,” he sighs. He stays his (remaining) hand when the hated, now helpless, Peter finally lies before him. At this crucial moment, in one of the most touching songs, he entreats himself for mercy, pleading the case for the unconscious Pan.
Karkowsky is an affable John Darling and is especially memorable in the scene with his brother Michael, equally well played by Benjamin Errig. Michael has forgotten who he is, since this is Neverland, insisting that his name is Slightly.
Morgan Weed is hysterical as a frowsy Tink. Hair askew, we see her full-sized flying in the background although she is so tiny she lives in a shell, and like the other musical, shown as a dot of light zipping across the stage. She brings a touch of Bette Midler to the role as she dangles forlornly in the air. She modulates her singing voice to sound like crying when she realizes that Pan has deserted her.
Mami Wata is an invented character. Since the Mermaid’s Lagoon in now a swamp, the show needed a Voodoo Swamp Thing to rule it. Marcy Harriell brings a huge voice to the role. Early on, she is an R&B belter but later sings with operatic clarity and a stunning soft vocal line. Her turning point duet with Wendy is a showstopper. She is also involved with two of the production’s truly magnificent coup de théâtre, which I will not spoil here except to say that the audience gets an aerial view and the swamp vanishes.
The pirates in this version have also been snatched from lives in the real world by Hook and forced to serve him on his rust bucket of a ship. Marina Draghici’s costumes, which are clever throughout, are especially wonderful here as these guys are still wearing what they had on when they left the real world. One is in Bermuda shorts with mismatched white socks and sandals while another is in a faded '60s American flag undershirt. Eddie Korbich as Smee, Chamblee Ferguson as Max, Hassan El-Amin as Dan, Dennis Lamberts as Skylights, Randy Pearlman as Boris are all terrific as bits of their formal life cling to their Neverland identities. Patrick Richwood delivers a star turn as the cook in his short but savory scene.
Bill Sherman’s music, played by eight musicians in the pit and led by Kurt Crowley, is effective but not memorable. It is hard to leave the theater humming the percussion. As we have learned from shows such as Les Miz, one good tune can carry an entire evening’s performance and stick to the audience long after. Such a tune doesn’t appear in Fly.
Scenic designer Anna Louizos does wonders with bamboo to create both the island and the Lost Boy’s hideout. The pirate ship looks like it is ready to sink at any moment, like it’s been on one too many Deadliest Catch missions and magically appears and vanishes like the Flying Dutchman.
With such a large cast, it would make for tiresome reading to gush any further about all of them. Suffice it to say that all deserve the rapturous ovation that greeted Fly on Friday. This one’s going to be a big hit, and we’ll venture to say not just in Dallas.
◊ Here are two video snippets of the musical numbers from the Dallas Theater Center: