By Bryson David Hoff
Family entertainment is in many ways, the most difficult genre to pull off. One must appeal to the children in the audience without annoying the parents who have brought them along. An existing property with a nostalgia value for the older viewers certainly helps, but it is still a difficult line to walk and one that Music Theater Works’s production of Peter Pan toes with aplomb.
Based on J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, this musical version tells the familiar tale of British children Wendy (Elizabeth Stenholt), John (Zachary Scott Fewkes), and Michael (Patrick McDermott), who are whisked away to the magical world of Neverland by the mischievous and enigmatic Peter Pan (Aubrey Adams). They then become embroiled in the magical boy’s ongoing feud with the piratical Captain Hook (Larry Adams) as well as the conflict between Peter’s gang of Lost Boys and the local tribe of island natives.
The secret to the success of MTW’s presentation is the willingness of the production team to embrace the roots of the source material, which lie squarely in the realm of British pantomime, a form of theatre that to this day is beloved as all-ages entertainment in the United Kingdom. Even the decision to stage the play around the holiday season belies a canny awareness of the genre. As such, the piece is suffused with a kind of hokey earnestness that, counter-intuitively, makes it easier to accept some of the dated humor and odd pacing that is baked into a script that was adapted in 1954, making very few changes from its then-50-year-old source. Though it does soften some of Barrie’s satire, it also makes it easy for the audience to go along with the childlike fantasy of it all.
And there is a lot of spectacle in which to get caught up. Peter Pan is indisputably a show that lives and dies by its ability to deliver on the effects and MTW has pulled out all of the stops in this regard, most notably in the flying effects provided by Vertigo, though Aubrey Adams’ athletic prowess in the title role must also be given its proper due. The sets, too, borrowed from Middle Tennessee University, are truly impressive, from the box set of the children’s nursery in the first act to the series of painted backdrops that represent the Neverland jungles. Here too the ethos is clear: don’t go for realism, go for what is most impressive for the audience to look at. The artistry is evident and sumptuous.
Aside from the technical, the other major risk in staging Peter Pan is how much responsibility for carrying the show rests on the shoulders of child actors. Here too, MTW has stacked not only the main cast but also the ensemble of Lost Boys with surprisingly gifted young performers. They deserve praise for their contribution, as does dialect coach Susan Gosdick, for managing to get such polished and effortless-seeming dialect work from such young performers.
There are, however, a few points at which the production does trip over the age of the material that they are given to work with. Much like the live taping of Peter Pan that was broadcast on NBC in 2014, this production butts up against the uncomfortable and outdated Native American stereotypes that are unavoidably part of the script. Unlike that production, which was free to make major rewrites to address these issues, this production is visibly hampered Musical Theatre International’s strict rules governing faithfulness to the script as licensed.
As a result, the main avenue left to address these issues is Robert S. Kuhn’s costume designs and, though his solution is both well-executed and textually-supported (since the leader of the tribe is called Tiger Lily, the costumes combine floral elements with non-culturally specific war paint), it’s difficult not to cringe a little bit every time the performers are made to speak in the script’s distinctly broad pidgin English or when their entrance leitmotif is of the same kind used in 1950s Westerns to signal an incoming wagon train attack. These are unavoidable issues, though, until Music Theatre International provides licensees with better options to address more enlightened modern attitudes, and certainly MTW’s solution is better than doing nothing.
For what it’s worth, the native’s numbers do provide a showcase for perhaps the strongest element of the production, Clayton Cross’ choreography. Cross emulates the formalist style of the original Jerome Robbins choreography while at the same time infusing it with his own brand of childlike playfulness that enhances the pantomime atmosphere and gives plenty of opportunity for the audience to ooh and ah at tumbling passes.
In a way, it is this approach that makes this production such a joy to watch. Peter Pan is and always has been fundamentally a spectacle. In a cynical age, the challenge in mounting a spectacle is getting the audience to suspend their disbelief enough to go along with production elements that exist purely for “rule of cool.” In that regard, Music Theater Works has ticked all of the right boxes, making their Peter Pan a worthy holiday treat for families.
Music Theater Works presents “Peter” through January 1 at the Cahn Auditorium 600 Sheridan Street, Evanston. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Brett Beiner.