Weirdly, I’d never before seen a version of the original Peter Pan before last night’s opening here in San Antonio: yes, I’d witnessed postmodern Peter Pans (such as the American Repertory Theater’s deeply flawed Peter Pan and Wendy) and manic mash-ups (such as Peter and the Starcatcher, currently enjoying a healthy run on Broadway). But I knew only snippets of the score from the 1950’s musical version, and knew even less about James Barrie’s original play from 1904. So it was a pleasure—at least as an exercise in theater history—to take in the current touring production, which stars former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby in her umpteenth go-around as the boy who never grows up. (Rigby nabbed a Tony nomination for her 1991 appearance on Broadway: I am happy to report that even at nearly sixty-years old, Rigby is still an appropriately spritely and spry Peter Pan.)
I think it’s fair to say that this production—even with its glances at pantomime and the English musical hall—is firmly rooted in pre-ironic performance traditions: there’s nothing winking or arch or hipster about this particular take on Peter Pan. (The introduction of Neverland’s Indians, for instance, looks like a cross between a pow-wow and Cirque du Soleil -- the production number is even entitled Indians! But here’s the thing: that exclamation point isn’t even remotely ironic. Indians are exciting.) Originally helmed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, this particular production is directed at breakneck speed by Glenn Casale and, at times, feels more like a speed-through than a properly paced production. (That was especially true at the end of Act I, a madcap adventure in an underwater cave.)
But the breathless tempo sometimes fit the mood of the piece: it’s the sort of play in which boys and girls make instant, impulsive decisions—like real boys and girls, I suppose—and fly, leap, and gambol to their heart’s delight: fairytale adventures in a neverneverland. Production values are strong: John Iacovelli’s story-book set neatly juxtaposes the Edwardian elegance of the Darlings’ manse with the open spaces (and primitive conditions) of Neverland, an island which will never feature electricity or (obviously) an airport. Broadway stalwart Brent Barrett chews the scenery as Captain Hook—his introductory hail of “boos” is well earned—and Krista Buccellato, a top-notch singer, makes for a marvelous Wendy. Rigby boasts a surprisingly strong singing voice, even when her startlingly acrobatic “flying” borders on the nerve-wracking. (Just how terrifying were the final 16 bars of “I’m Flying”? I was practically shitting myself with anxiety.)
Whizzing by at just over two hours, the production is obviously calculated to keep young children engaged and entertained, and while there were some toddlers who didn’t make it through Act II, the young ’uns around me seemed largely to be enjoying themselves. I might have wished for some more nuanced staging—there are some lovely moments in Moose Charlap and Jule Styne’s score—but I realize that children’s theater has different priorities than other types of performance. And there’s something refreshing about seeing a production that serves up the Indian dance “Ugg-a-Wugg” with a completely straight face: it’s like falling through a wormhole in time.
Me, I prefer the zaniness and ingenuity of Peter and the Starcatcher, and I hope that it tours through San Antonio soon. But if you want to see a faithful re-creation of an iconic artifact of America’s “Golden Age” of musical theater, then the Majestic is where you want to land.