Before “The Little Mermaid,” or “Beauty and the Beast,” even before “Mary Poppins,” J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” forged its place in everyone’s imagination and instantly became the most adored fantasy of the 20th century.
If, like many of us, you were aghast at the recent television version featuring Allison Williams, take heart. You must experience Rivertown Theaters’ enchanting production and be wonderfully revitalized again.
What a joy to see so many young people attend the opening performance. Never have I seen children so enthralled by theatrical magic. They sat with rapt attention and pin-drop silence, punctuated by eruptions of delight.
Swiftly directed by Kelly Fouchi and featuring a cast of more than 35 fully committed actors, this “Peter Pan” is at once thrilling, sweet and just plain fun.
As Peter, the boy who’ll never grow up, RossQuinn (a triple-threat of acting, singing and dancing) marvels. Traditionally played by a female, his rascally street urchin Peter is fueled by a bad-boy mischief and love for excitement.
With outstanding stage presence, the charismatic Matt Reed as Captain Hook — “the swiniest swine in world” — delivers the most professional performance. Reed also doubles as the bumbling, officious Mr. Darling. His comic timing – particularly when teamed with the splendidly inventive Gary Rucker as Smee, Hook’s dim-witted first in command of a colorful but hilariously inept group of pirates — is perfect.
Christian Tarzetti plays Wendy, the surrogate mother to the lost boys. She matches Quinn’s energy step for step. Her finest moments come in her sincere rendering of “Distant Melody.” As softly accompanied by Quinn, her honest simplicity touches the heart.
The technical complexity of “Peter Pan” is enough to give directors and designers nightmares.
From Nana the Dog; to the mercurial Tinker Bell; to Peter’s lost shadow; to the clock-ticking, Hook-chomping crocodile — the spectacle never disappoints. Not to mention a series of jaw-dropping flying scenes, created by Fly by Foy and directed by Shelley Johnson Rucker. The astonishing entrance of Peter drew opening night applause.
With expert compositions, impeccable stage business and choreographic blocking, Fouchi commands every inch of Rivertown’s stage. She is more than well-served by designer/scenic artist David Raphel’s set designs. His exquisite multiple settings and backdrops are enriched by Jeff Davis’ painterly lighting design and Michelle Hathaway’s attractive costumes.
Perhaps the paramount achievement of the evening is the superb choreography of Caroline Cuseo. Although the three Indian dances may go on a tad too long, Cuseo’s ingenuity is reinforced by an admirable troupe of dancers led by the impressive, accomplished Gabrielle Edgerson as Tiger Lilly.
All, however, is not perfect in Neverland. Opening night sound issues led to some ear-piercing screeching. Most disrupted was Mrs. Darling’s (Michelle Macicek) famous lullaby, “Tender Shepherd.”
The use of recorded music, fine in its own right, saddens. If the intention is to bring young people into a life of musical theater, don’t we owe them what we experienced: live, musical theater? Will future generations never hear the beauty of an unamplified voice again?
Every fantasy has a bit of terror to heighten the eventual joy. Snow White has her evil witch. Pinocchio has Monstro the whale. Here, the pirates are more funny than dangerous and the Indians more elegant than threatening. One wonders why the pirates are so afraid of these graceful Indians. Without a touch of real danger, there can be no heroics.
A choice in the final scene is a head-scratcher, too. Wendy, now older, is traditionally portrayed by Mrs. Darling, thereby framing the doubling of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling and creating a fascinating poetic circle.
Having Tarzetti play the grown Wendy brings unwelcome logic into the realm of the imaginary.
Fantasy lives in a dreamlike existence far more real than reality itself. And without noticeable evidence of two people forever separated by the passage of time, there can be little heartbreak.
Bruce Burgun is a retired professor of theater from Indiana University and a long-time member of the American Theater Critics Association.