Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Dinner for One
Fairy dust or not, this Peter Pan is wonderful. Not only does the heroic boy who never grows old fly, the entire production soars. Director Lonny Price, with a long list of New York and London credits as director and actor, shows an understanding that its fanciful premise, episodic adventures, and wistful denouement must appeal to both young children (like my four-year-old self) and adults alike. The show has lively choreography by Lorin Latarro, who choreographed last year's acclaimed Broadway revival of Into the Woods, and has two shows slated to open on Broadway this spring (The Who's Tommy and The Heart of Rock and Roll). The choreography is more athletic than edgy, which suits the tone of Peter Pan simply fine.
Then there is the flying. If you have gone out of your way to avoid Peter Pan, this may be a surprise to you: Peter Pan can fly–with the help of lovely thoughts and the fairy dust mentioned above. Paul Rubin is credited as flying sequences choreographer, which may sound like a niche job that provides little work, but Rubin's many Broadway gigs include Wicked, Frozen, and four separate engagements of Peter Pan starring gymnast Cathy Rigby, throughout the 1990s. The Rigby production had several national tours, going well into the current century (it visited the Ordway in 2005), and Rubin saw to the flying in those as well. He knows the job, and delivers the magic (even if, as adults, we cannot miss the strings that support our believed flying hero.)
In this non-Equity cast, the actor doing most of the flying is Nolan Almeida, who just turned eighteen. He is listed on the show poster below the word "introducing," as in, you haven't seen him before. His wonderful performance here, with a smooth full voice, keen acting chops, and nimble grace–dancing on the ground as well as tumbling and sweeping through the air–mark him as a talented new arrival in the realm of musicals. He imbeds Peter with a precisely right quality of defiant boyishness and a fierce determination to never grow up, but also a trace of sadness, wistful at being left behind as the world grows up around him. Almeida scores big in major musical numbers (written, after all, for Mary Martin)–"I've Gotta Crow," "I'm Flying," "Wendy," "I Won't Grow Up," and the ever-so tender "Neverland."
Though there have been some changes, at its core, this new production is the same stage show initially adapted from James M. Barrie's 1904 play by Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed the production when it premiered in 1954. Peter Pan has run away from adult responsibilities to the island of Neverland, where children never grow up. He lives there as captain of the Lost Boys, other lads of different ages who have become lost and ended up in Neverland. The island is also home to pirates, whose leader, Captain Hook, is Peter's arch enemy, and to a band of indigenous people (in past productions called Indians) led by Tiger Lily.
For some time, Peter has been perching outside the window of the Darling family's London home to hear the bedtime stories Mrs. Darling tells her children Wendy (the oldest), John, and Michael, the youngest. On an evening Mr. and Mrs. Darling go out, Peter enters the children's bedroom and in short order, Wendy, Michael and John have learned to fly and are heading off to Neverland with Peter. Also with Peter is his fairy companion, Tinkerbell, a vibrant and delightful presence created here by light and musical effects designed by Paul Kieve.
Some of what was fresh and magical in the original play and musical has become dated and problematic now, so playwright Larissa Fasthorse was brought in to update the show's book. Fasthorse's work is familiar to Twin Cities theatregoers. Her plays What Would Crazy Horse Do? and The Thanksgiving Play have been staged here (the latter was done on Broadway last season, making her the first Native woman to have a play produced there), and For the People, which she co-wrote with Ty Defoe, world-premiered at the Guthrie earlier this fall. Fasthorse updated the show's period from the Edwardian era to now, complete with cell phones and video games. Mr. Darling complains about having to attend a "work thing" that evening, and the St. Bernard nursemaid Nana is replaced by an inattentive teenage babysitter, equipped with earbuds.
The most problematic aspect was the original's stereotypic and, frankly, insulting depiction of American Indians. Fasthorse now references Tiger Lily's band as indigenous people and their costumes are no longer skimpy fringed bits. The production jettisons a dance number that introduced the "Indians"–instrumental except for shouts of "ugga-wugga meatball"–and replaces a production number called "Ugg-a-Wugg" that celebrates Peter and Tiger Lily forming an alliance against the pirates. For that, the producers brought in Amanda Green–a prolific musical theater lyricist and the daughter of Adolph Green, who, with Betty Comden, wrote lyrics for many of the original Peter Pan's songs to music by Jule Styne (including the offending "Ugg-a-Wugg"). In its place, Ms. Green took a number from the vast Comden and Green songbook, "Once in a Lifetime," (from a little seen early 1960s show called Subways Are for Sleeping), gave it completely new lyrics and turned it into "Friends Forever." It is a sparkling new addition that makes no effort to ape stereotypic "Indian" motifs, but rather, like the rest of the score, fits easily into the sound of Broadway's Golden Age.
Fasthorse also expanded Tiger Lily's presence in the show and gives Wendy a song–shockingly, she had no songs in the original musical. Now, rather than Peter Pan singing the haunting lullaby "Distant Melody" (which was improbable, but the song was a splendid fit for Mary Martin's velvet voice), Wendy sings the lullaby to her two brothers who are beginning to feel homesick. It works beautifully.
In addition to Nolan Almeida's breakout performance as Peter Pan, praise also goes to Cody Garcia as both the dastardly Captain Hook (but never truly frightening, which is a good thing for all the young kids in the audience) and the Darling children's short-tempered father. He delivers Hook's specialty turns–a tango, a tarantella, and most deliciously, a waltz, with comic flare, and his long-legged frame makes Garcia by far the best dancer of all the Captain Hook's I have seen.
Kurt Perry has excellent comic timing as Hook's first mate, Smee. Hawa Kamara is a terrific Wendy, spunky and sweet in equal measure. Raye Zaragoza brings a beautiful voice to the expanded role of Tiger Lily, though I would have wished for her to show more bravado to suit her new status as heroine to Peter's hero. Shefali Deshpande provides a moving portrayal of Mrs. Darling. Two pairs of boys alternate between the roles of John and Michael, and the Lost Boys' set of twins. For the opening night performance, Micah Turner Lee was excellent as the somewhat stodgy John and Reed Epley was astonishingly good as Michael, conveying a healthy measure of rascal energy and an impressive crow.
The physical production is stunning, with Sarafina Bush providing wonderful costumes and keen lighting by Amith Chandrashaker. David Bengali's gorgeous projections by David Bengali make it appear that Peter, Wendy, John and Michael are truly flying, and that the pirate ship is indeed bobbing up and down in its harbor. Most impressive is Anna Louiszos' set designs, with a nursery believably littered with toys, books, and other trappings of affluent children, the lush woods of Neverland, a hulking pirate ship, and the hidden home of Peter and the Lost Boys, which makes itself visible in a grand reveal.
So, almost seven decades after I first fell head over heels for "the boy who wouldn't grow up," I am again exhilarated and teary eyed just remembering the joy with which I sat at the Ordway and watched the curtain go up on this Peter Pan , re-suited for 2023 and still earning the right to crow. Long may he fly!
Peter Pan runs through December 31, 2023, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 651-224-4222 or visit www.ordway.org. For information on the national tour, visit peterpanontour.com.
Original Adaptation, Direction and Choreography: Jerome Robbins, based on the play by Sir J.M. Barrie; Additional Book: Larissa Fasthorse; Music: Morris (Moose) Charlap; Additional Music: Jule Styne; Lyrics: Carolyn Leigh: Additional Lyrics: Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Amanda Green; Director: Lonny Price; Choreography: Lorin Latarro; Flying Sequence Choreography: Paul Rubin; Scenic Design: Anna Louizos; Costume Design: Sarafina Bush; Lighting Design: Amith Chandrashaker; Sound Design: Kai Harada; Projection Design: David Bengali; Hair, Wig and Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas; "Tinker Bell" Design: Paul Kieve; Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet & Christian Kelly-Sordelet; Music Supervisor and Additional Arrangements: Andy Einhorn; Fight Music & Dance Arrangements: David Dabbon; Music Director and Conductor: Jonathan Marro; Music Coordinator: John Mezzio; Associate Director: Matt Cowart; Associate Choreographer: Travis Waldschmidt; Casting: ARC/Duncan Stewart, CSA, Patrick Maravilla; Production Stage Manager: Ashlynn Abbott; Executive Producer: Trinity Wheeler.
Cast: Nolan Almeida (Peter Pan), Charles Antenen (ensemble), Jonah Barricklo (ensemble), Eric Allen Boyd (ensemble), Christina Helene Braa (Crocodile/ensemble), Tony Collins (swing), Shefali Deshpande (Mrs. Darling/ensemble) Reed Epley (* Michael/ensemble), William Foon (* John/ensemble), Bailey Frankenberg (swing), Leo Gallegos (ensemble), Cody Garcia (Mr. Darling/Captain Hook), Brandon Gille (ensemble), Jayden Guarneri (* Michael/ensemble), Hawa Kamara (Wendy), Micah Turner Lee (* John/ ensemble), Ryan Perry Marks (ensemble), Michael Marrero (ensemble), Cheyenne Omani (swing), Kurt Perry (Smee), Kenny Ramos (Acoma/ensemble), Hannah Schmidt (Liza/ensemble), Kiara Williams (ensemble), Raye Zaragoza (Tiger Lily). *Alternating performances