Forget the Mary Martin (and certainly the recent NBC live) PETER PAN. And the Disney and the Johnny Depp ones, too. Replace with Bard Summerscape’s LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S PETER PAN, a stunning new production that combines a subversive adaptation of Bernstein’s 1950 version with his nearly forgotten, full original score and a dazzling, modern conception by director Christopher Alden. The bones of J. M. Barrie’s PETER PAN are extant, but stripped of the buttery baby fat accumulated from sugary stage and screen adaptations since the classic fairy tale was first dramatized in 1904. Enter a PETER PAN for the 21st century.
Much like how director Daniel Fish dug deep into Oscar Hammerstein’s book of OKLAHOMA! to revelatory effect at Bard several seasons back, so too has Alden exposed a darker side of Barrie’s classic. It’s still all in Barrie’s text, but in this version by Alden, with dramaturge Peter Littlefield, this is Wendy’s tale, not so much Peter’s. Wendy (played unappealingly with too much steeliness by Erin Markey) here is an only child, a sullen teenager, born with cynical silver spoon. Barrie’s Peter and sidekick Tinker Bell always seemed sexually or gender ambiguous to me when I was a kid, but here Peter (played with neurotic quirkiness by the tall, lithe Peter Smith) is unapologetically nonbinary sexually. Tinker Bell (played with nymph dexterity by Jack Fervor who also choreographs) is agenderous. In this Neverland, cisnormativity is irrelevant, at last. The ragtag five member ensemble of mixed gender, non-uniform in body type, motley in a cute kind of way, doubles as Lost Boys and pirates both.
As for the parents Darling, Freudians who’ve put them on the proverbial couch for over a century can say I told you so. Wendy’s father George (played and sung brilliantly by baritone William Michals) and mother Mary (a wonderfully versatile Rona Figeuroa) morph into Captain Hook and Tiger Lily. Barrie’s submersed Oedipus surfaces, finally. Captain Hook is a brutish blood-fiend, recalling Sweeney Todd (far removed from the effete Hook of Cyril Ritchard in the Mary Martin 1954 televised version.). And if mother Darling as Tiger Lilly doesn’t fit the Freudian argument, then you can rest your case when she also shows up as the Crocodile.
Amidst these twists, Bard's PETER PAN still preserves the magical whimsy of the 20thCentury’s best known fairy tale thanks in large measure to a fantastical, sometimes creepy, always surreal, scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg and costumes by Terese Wadden. The large stage of the LUMA at the Fisher Center is a Dadaesque dreamscape of chartreuse stained floor and back wall bathed in semi florescence. Props and wardrobe best described as popArp wondrously appear: a plastic dog statue (reminiscent of the RCA mascot) as the Darling’s pooch Nana; a glittering silver disco ball as Tinker Bell’s head as he arrives in glittering silver lame body suit; and, cheap Disney cartoon rip offs of animal heads (plushies perhaps ?) for the mermaids’ attendants in Neverland. The inspired centerpiece though is an aging, amusement park swing ride, with five flying airplane-shaped seats twirling at good clip that transport Peter in flight or when still provide the ship helm for the Jolly Roger and sleeping births for the Lost Boys.
Counterpoint to Adlen’s take, and raison d’être for this production, is Bernstein’s poetic, beautiful score staged in full here for the first time . (To clarify, Bernstein had nothing to do with the 1954 Mary Martin version for which Mark Charlap did most, Jules Styne some, of the music and Comden and Green most of the lyrics.) Alexander Frey's 2005 recording, which was the first to include rediscovered Bernstein songs and incidental music that were cut from the original 1950 production, gives the score, regarded by many as the precursor to CANDIDE, full orchestral expression. At Bard, PETER PAN is conducted as chamber musical, with on stage set of six musicians, appropriate to Alden’s unique vision. Orchestrations carry a hint of dissonance, appropriate, too.
Most of Bernstein’s composition, including the incidental music, was ravishing. Each of sweetly melodic songs “Who Am I?”, “My House”, “Peter, Peter” and the elegiac lullaby finale “Dream With Me” are Wendy’s. Unfortunately, Ms Markey's weak voice didn't seem to correspond with the steely demeanor she gave her Wendy. Ms Figueroa as Mrs Darling imbued “Who Am I” in reprise with a bluesy resonance that was spot-on. The vocal highlight of the show was Mr. Michals’ Hook Soliloquy that best displayed his powerful operatic skill.
My single consequential disappointment in the production would be with Ms Markey's unappealing Wendy. In the end, in contrast to Peter, Wendy decides she’ll never return to Neverland, that she will grow up. The problem is that Ms Markey’s characterization is so hard-edged, sullen and humorless - emotionless, really - there’s little suggestion of youthful innocence to have been lost. In Ms Markey’s hands, Wendy is pretty much the same beginning to end. If she's had an awakening, it isn't cathartic.
Thus, what prevails dramatically is the theme of time’s inevitability. Fittingly, the play starts with tick-tocks, which resound throughout the production. A wall clock, which is carried about the stage, placed here, mounted there, is omnipresent. Time, like the clock in the belly of the Crocodile hunting Hook, stalks us too. At some point, time will stop for us all. Says Hook “That is the fear that haunts me.” Wendy and Peter deal with their mortality in different ways: Wendy decides to grow up, to face it (maybe). Peter continues to escape from it.
PETER PAN reminds that we too escape to to storytelling, to fantasy, to Neverlands of our own all the time. Tinker Bell challenges Peter to “clap if you believe in fairies.” At the performance I attended, the audience spontaneously joined in with Peter’s clapping. Even from its darkest angle, PETER PAN continues to instruct why we still need to believe.
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