Who needs a car when you have fairy dust? That miracle roadster over at the Hilton is mighty impressive, but if you must see something British flying inside a theater, you can do better than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. One young gentleman I know has never needed more than a sprinkle of that magic powder and an equal dash of lovely thoughts, and as of 2005, he's been airborne in this country for 100 years!
Sitting at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, where he's landed in another return engagement of the musical version of Peter Pan, one is even more amazed at his longevity. It's not that the Sir James Barrie story has lost its wings in the century since Maude Adams first captivated audiences as the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, or in the 51 years since Mary Martin took flight in this musical version. And it's not that the role's current essayer, Cathy Rigby, has lost much edge in the 20-some years she's been playing Peter. The magic of theatre makes both resolute impossibilities.
No, judging by what's currently onstage, what's most astonishing is that Peter and his cohorts (including, or especially, director Glenn Casale) weren't long ago arrested for speeding. Even Chitty would blow a gasket trying to keep up with Peter and the Darlings as they roam Neverland and fight Captain Hook at a velocity akin to hitting triple-fast-forward on your TiVo. The last time I saw such a winning musical executed at such a reckless speed was... well, 1999, when I saw Rigby's last New York stand as Peter Pan (which, in retrospect, was relatively relaxed).
Time has undoubtedly been kind to Rigby, who made her name as an Olympic gymnast and hasn't visibly lost her energy or flexibility, despite being nearly 53. She's not absolutely ideal for the role, and never has been: She sings and acts decently enough, but seems a genuine star only when spinning and somersaulting through the air, though in terms of determination and conviction, she can't be beat.
But those qualities alone can't sell any show, and it's impossible to know what else Rigby or her castmates might find if they had any time to think about it. They don't, and neither do you, because Casale gives no one a chance to catch his or her breath. Everything that's not heavy action, whether it's Peter tilting with pirates or a celebratory dance of friendship between Peter's brood of Lost Boys and Tiger Lily's Indian tribe, is a formality to be dispensed with at great haste.
Forget about establishing the ho-hum home life of Wendy, John, and Michael Darling. Ignore the details of the deceptively complex relationship between Peter and Wendy (Elisa Sagardia), who can't communicate because one wants to grow up and the other doesn't. And whatever you do, don't dwell on condemning the emotional havoc that staying a boy can cause, especially in a final scene that usually ranks as one of musical theatre's most effortlessly tearjerking. For that matter, should Tinkerbell drink poison, get the audience clapping as fast as possible to save her so that the climactic fight on Captain Hook's ship can still end before 9:00 PM.
This is precisely the wrong approach for a show about savoring the freshest things in life for as long as possible. And with Barrie's touching and exhilarating play, augmented by wonderful songs from Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh (music and lyrics, respectively) and Jule Styne and Betty Comden & Adolph Green (additional music and lyrics, respectively), there's more to savor here than at most five-star restaurants.
So many numbers churn with such youthful vitality that to hear them, even this breathlessly sung, is to instantly feel a decade younger. "Tender Shepherd" and "Distant Melody" are wistfully beautiful lullabies, "I Gotta Crow" and "I'm Flying" ecstatic paeans to the joys of adolescent freedom, and "Wendy" and "I Won't Grow Up" great playtime numbers. "Ugg-a-Wugg," led by Peter and Tiger Lily (Lauren Masiello) as a full-company dance number, is a romping, stomping showstopper. Even the prancing waltzes, tarantellas, and tangos for Hook (James Clow) and his swarthy shipmates, the songs most geared toward younger audiences, are elaborately crafted time-passers.
But everything tends to vanish immediately, leaving you little time to appreciate the action, the music, or even the attractive storybook physical production (John Iacovelli's set seems too small and haggard for the mammoth MSG stage, but Shigeru Yaji's playful costumes and Tom Ruzika's lights fit in nicely). And it's difficult to appraise performances that almost seem to never happen: Clow's melodramatic posturing is apparently a sneeringly entertaining treat, and Masiello brings a contemporary, sinewy sex appeal to Tiger Lily (highlighted by Patti Colombo's energetic choreography) that satisfies for as long as it lasts. Sagardia might be too cloying to be believable as Wendy (she starred opposite Rigby six years ago, too), and Patrick Richwood might be broad even the usual Smee standards, but who has time to dwell?
Or, really, the inclination? This remains Broadway's best-ever family musical; even when shown to only partial advantage, it's still the reigning champ among other current offerings like Chitty, The Lion King, or Wicked. And with Rigby soaring and tumbling through the production for what's being billed as the last time, you're guaranteed an event. But if you bring the kids, make every single second of the trip special for them. It will, alas, be over before they - and you - know it.