Live theatre is often about magic, especially when taking on classic tales like “Peter Pan.” Transporting an audience into space and time, as actors take on roles of some of our favorite characters against a backdrop of enchanting scenes, puts us in a headspace of fanciful reverie. Thalian Association currently presents the musical based on Sir J.M Barrie’s childhood adventure, “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” with music by Jule Styne, Mark Charlap and Trude Rittmann, and lyrics by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Carolyn Leigh.
Directed by David Loudermilk, “Peter Pan” boasts a hefty cast of adorable children. First off: Kudos to Loudermilk for undertaking the massive and intimidating role of staging and choreographing so many youngsters, from first graders to juniors in college to veteran actors, in a ton of dance scenes. All the show’s high points revolve around over-the-top commotion: lots of kids are running about, doing a jig, and singing our favorite songs. “Indian Dance” and “Ugh-a-Wug” showcase a Neverland tribe flailing and kicking, jumping and falling, and making waves as allies to The Lost Boys. Tiger Lily, played by Jessi Goei, certainly stands out among the Indian cast for her lovely agility and on-point technique; it’s clear she’s trained in modern dance and ballet.
The Lost Boys deliver the best song of the evening, “I Don’t Want to Grow Up,” and will have every mother in the audience vying to take them home to nurture. Paired with tons of cuteness from the Animals—toddlers in lion, peacock and kangaroo costumes—and a backdrop of supersized flowers and vines strewn across platforms that give height and jumping-off points for these frolicking kids, Neverland comes alive. Terry Collins’ Scenic Design set suits the show but not in the expected “Swiss Family Robinson” fashion. The only downfall of this imaginary place comes during Hook’s ship scene. It’s under-dressed to represent the dark open sea, but it lacks vitality of imagination needed to carry the scene. Also, a very loud lift delivers the boat to the stage and distracts from the staging of “Hook’s Waltz.”
However, the pirates provide plenty of brouhahas to make up for it, as seen in “Hook’s Tango” and “Hook’s Tarantella.” Special notice goes to Hook’s right-hand man, Smee, played by Paul Homick. His physical comedy brings vitality to the role and even as a secondary character, he steals the spotlight over and over again. The use of the entire theatre for the pirates’ grand entrance onstage, as they trample through the aisles, will startle the audience at the onset, but it elevates the allure of being taken over by no-good scallywags.
Hook himself, played by J. Stuart Pike, is quite a bumbling leader—neither truly commanding nor threatening as other pirates, say, like Blackbeard. This version of “Peter Pan” banks on the lightheartedness of children’s fairy tales and the innocence in which they dream; it only hints at the darker original book version, where death plays a prominent role in guiding the tale (after all, it was inspired by the unfortunate death of Barrie’s 14-year-old brother). Although, the ticking clock in the belly of the croc metaphors passing time and aging, it’s only background for the Disney version of the story we’ve all come to know. Quite frankly, embracing the fanciful child’s play of Neverland instead of the burdensome reality of life is just fine by me.
Pike himself offered the dedication of the show at the curtain speech and thanked his own mother for introducing him to theatre at such a young age. Heartfelt and apropos, he encouraged an audience filled with families and children to enroll their kids who may need a perfect outlet to talk loud and expend boundless energy. He managed to prove how theatre allows adults to stay in the realm of fantasy, too, as they lose themselves in characters they love. Walking the line between the role of Father Darling—who fights to lead his household of wife, children, nannies, and dog—and of Hook—who fights to lead his crew of pirates—is a perfect parallel to the dredge of day-to-day life and the wont of escapism. Pike carries his scenes with a loose lead, making his characters’ struggles more believable.
Of course, the show’s success would be nil if not for that flying boy carrying the weight of the story. Emilia Torrello as Peter Pan is a glimmering hit. She captures the silliness and carefree spirit of a pre-teen, who giggles when Tink calls him an “ass” or finds mocking Hook and playing shadow the most fun games in the world. Emilia doesn’t feign believing in magic, perhaps the most important aspect of pulling off Neverland’s leader. From every shrill in her voice to the cackles of her laugh to the bouncy rhythm in her flight, she captivates.
And, yes, there is flying in the show! I suspect Arianna Torello (Wendy Darling—and Emilia’s sister in real life), Chase Coston (John Darling) and Carson Holmes (Michael Darling) have never had so much fun in all the world as they do gliding above the stage at Thalian. Along with a toss of fairy dust (glitter), ZFX, Inc. makes the flights possible; the audience gasps during each one in envy.
While Carson Holmes is a hoot from the onset of the show, in a cut-up, almost bratty fashion, Arianna Torello and Chase Coston are a bit more docile. It seems they take a little time to get comfortable in their roles. Arianna truly excels in Neverland, showcasing the divide between growing up too soon—even if only “playing” mother—and embracing the adventure of youth. Without a doubt, there’s a disconnection of energy between the hubbub of Neverland’s scenes and the opposite meek scenes at the Darling household. While their mother, played by Allison Reid, tries to thread it all by reading from the story book to lead us into each subsequent chapter, somehow it doesn’t connect organically. It feels like the in-between scenes are merely downtime to build up to the action. And maybe they are, but sometimes they lack believability. Then again, if that’s the only quip I can offer about a show that actually functions at the hightest level from fantasy, then I suppose it’s easy to call “Peter Pan” a hit. It’s fun really lies in suspending disbelief in magic.
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut Street
Thurs.- Sun., through Oct. 5,
7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.