Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Say You Love Satan
Peter Pan is often a child's first introduction to theater, and it remains a favorite as well among grownups who want, for just a few hours, to revisit the world of childhood selectively filtered through an adult's memory. Who, while slogging off to work in the humid St. Louis summer, would not agree that Peter had the right idea?
I don't want to wear a tie
Yes, we could all do with a trip to Neverland now and then, and James M. Barrie is just the boy to take us there. This is the seventh time Peter Pan has been presented at the Muny, making it a perennial favorite on a par with shows like Carousel and My Fair Lady. This continued popularity is a testament to the enduring appeal of James Barrie's vision, because in contrast to the previously mentioned works, Peter Pan shows both its age and the seams inherent in a work created partly by committee.
Barrie wrote the play Peter Pan in 1904, based on stories he made up to amuse the children of a family friend. Music was a part of the early stage performances, which included popular songs of the day, but an integrated musical version of Peter Pan wasn't written until the 1950s. One version with music by Leonard Bernstein was presented on Broadway in 1950, followed by the better-known 1954 version starring Mary Martin, with songs by Moose Charlap and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, additional music by Jule Styne and additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The Muny presents the 1954 version and, if you listen carefully, you can guess who wrote which songs, but it's better to not think about such things because this is one show you have to buy into from the start, or you might as well stay home.
In order to enjoy Peter Pan, you also have to be able to overlook some racist and sexist attitudes which are cringe-inducing to a modern audience: it helps to keep in mind that the original play was written over 100 years ago and draws on the non-realistic tradition of the English Pantomime. The Muny production takes the approach that nothing is real in Neverland: the youth ensemble's Indian Tribe is outfitted with costumes which would be at home in a Disney cartoon, and they use the stereotypical gestures and speech of children playing Cowboys and Indians in their backyard. The pirates are similarly exaggerated and comical, led by Robert Westenberg as the scenery-chewing Captain Hook.
So how does Peter Pan continue to charm us in our ironic and post-modern world? It must be magical, or it doesn't work at all: instead of accepting Neverland as an enchanted world, you start to notice that the Muny apparently blew the scenery budget on last week's performance of Hello, Dolly! because the Lost Boy's home in Neverland seems to be made out of papier mache, and the pirate ship sets are shaped remarkably like those representing the Darling's nursery.
You know you've gone too far with the post-modern skepticism when you find yourself asking why the Darlings can't afford a nursemaid but can manage to take in a ragtag band of Lost Boys who no doubt expect to eat regularly, or why Tinkerbell didn't simply pour out the bottle of poison rather than drink it. Of course the answer in both cases is that they allow Barrie to create splendid theatrical moments: from the first premise we get Nana the dog who thinks she's people, and the second allowed Barrie to create the greatest applause-milking device in the history of theatre. "Clap your hands or Tinkerbell will die": who but the most mean-spirited of theatre-goers could ignore this plea to keep the flickering electric light which represents Tinkerbell burning a bit longer? No, enjoyment of Peter Pan requires massive suspension of disbelief. It also requires you to forget that Freud ever existed (and in this production, he doesn't) or that "fairy" has any meaning other than a tiny imaginary being in human form.
The other thing you need to do is turn off your inner critic and determine that you will enjoy what is good in Peter Pan and overlook what is not so good, because both exist in abundance. At least half the music is pedestrian, but a song like Neverland makes it worth sitting through the rest. Insipid choreography is also the rule rather than the exception: apart from the aerial ballet, what we get are mostly people running around and waving their arms, or masses of children turning in place. But the aerial ballet remains stunning, particularly when trees form a natural backdrop, and there's something about seeing actors fly above a stage that is more impressive than all the special effects available in movies nowadays. (It's worth remembering that Flying by Foy, which is now the standard theatre flying technology, was developed for a production of Peter Pan.)
The role of Peter Pan was originally played by a woman, drawing on the English Pantomime tradition as well as the long history of breeches roles in opera and popular theater. I'm sure Francis Jue is an accomplished actor, and he has a powerful singing voice, but seeing a grown man in Peter's green tunic puts me in mind of The Santaland Diaries in which David Sedaris recounts the humiliation of putting on green velvet knickers to work the Christmas season at Macy's as one of Santa's elves. Mary Martin was a more convincing boy than Mr. Jue, who sometimes seems to have wandered over from Rydell High instead of falling out of his pram, and hearing Peter's songs in the register of an adult male creates a jarring contrast with his protestations that he has managed to avoid growing up.
There's one big thing the Muny got absolutely right, and it bears mention because you can no longer take it for granted. The greatest moment in a musical, for me, is when the orchestra strikes up the overture: immediately I am transported to another world where there are no boring meetings or traffic jams or bills to pay. This tradition lives on at the Muny; there's a real live orchestra in the pit, including instruments you don't hear every day, like English horn and bass clarinet. It's particularly important to have an orchestra for Peter Pan, because incidental music plays vital role in the production. I've recently seen one high-budget production of a musical in which the string section which was replaced by two synthesizers, and others in which the orchestra was a recording, so having real live people playing real acoustic instruments is becoming an unaccustomed treat. I love the fact the Muny keeps the conductor visible to the audience as well, instead of relying on monitors for communication: it underlines the splendor of the occasion as well as the fact that people are making this music, right now and especially for you to hear.
Peter Pan will be playing at the Muny in Saint Louis through July 22. Ticket information is available from the Muny ticket office in Forest Park, and from MetroTix at 314-534-1111, metrotix.com or any MetroTix location. The next production at the Muny will be The Pajama Game, which will be presented July 23-29.
Music: Mark Charlap
Direction: Gary John La Rosa