Based on play by Sir J.M. Barrie
Music and lyrics by Caroline Leigh Morris
Additional music by Jules Styne
Additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Director by Karen Rugerio
Animation and Visual Effects Director Amber Larkin
Effects curtesy of Nth Degree Design and Visual fx
Choreography by Carol Cudjoe
Musical Direction by Tim Hanes
Starring Alysia Vastardis and Griffin Bunch
Garden Theatre, Winter Garden Florida
There’s either very little going on here, or more than you want to know. Wendy Darling (Vastardis) and her brothers John (Aiden Fracker) and Michael (Tristan Zambrana) live in relative Victorian comfort. Father (Lyle Moon) might be a bit stern but mother (Monica Titus) is a pip and Nana the Dog (Jared Wheelock) would die for them. But there’s trouble: a boy broke in one night and Mother just captured his shadow. When Peter Pan (Bunch) returns to claim it, the children discover him and he makes this offer: “I’ll teach you to fly and you’ll never have to grow up.” After that its adventures with Pirates and Indians and the sort of animatronic dancing animals a certain theme park loves so well. When the adventures are played out, the question remains: grow up or stay fixed in childhood forever? At least these kids have a choice.
On a deeper level there’s implicit fears of abandonment and abuse; the ticking crocodile that pursues Captain Hook is the time passage that destroys us all. Indians and crows can feel like threats to society from without, the mass of Lost Boys is poverty and starvation and a threat from within. Bright Peter bluffs his way thought this parable of England; he soldiers through hardship protected by the magical spells of Tinkerbell (here a blob of light with no real vocalization.) Wendy gladly seeks out the nurturing role of mother to the mass of Lost Boys; she offers them fantastic stories and they work selflessly for her; this is the common thread of all nationalistic story boards. And here the Indians are friendly and helpful while Hook is both elegant and supercilious. Even his bad guys aren’t really bad, just misguided and a bit less threatening than the pickpockets in a Dickens’ tale.
Spectacle out weighs story; on a traditional level the dancing and costumes flash and flutter and carry the tale. Both Nana the Dog and the monstrous foam Crocodile (operated by Khalil McClarrin) were charming and underused, and there was even a dancing tree (Jared Wheelock) that was much livelier than any Ent you’ve encountered. The children’s aerial action was largely done by swinging them on the shoulders of black-clad shadows; this alone would have made their magic work on any stage.
But the major innovation here is it technical. A system of optical projectors painted the sets; whether in a Victorian bedroom or on a jungle island or a flight through the towers of London. The projected colors were bright and well registered; I looked hard for “seams” in the projector overlays but could never find them. Hand holds on the wall let actors clamber high and low; sometimes to hide in the rafters or climb the rigging of Hook’s ship, sometimes just to add a new layer of action to and otherwise static scene.
On the less successful side the production occasionally felt more like a film than a stage show. Tinker Bell seemed right out of Uncle Walt’s Imagineering Offices as she streaked across the room. The sets had an odd curvature (I suspect this helped the projector seams disappear); in the bed room it was disturbing but at sea or in the jungle it seems fine. The digital flying scenes induced some vertigo; I was just back far enough that it only caused momentary disorientation but sitting in the front rows might be a problem if you tend to airsickness.
Is digital projection where theater is “going”? That can’t be ruled out; it IS a digital world we live in. The process is vivid and allows a wild array of hyper-cartoonish locales that feel suitable for an action adventure evert. But so often I’ve seen shows spend effort on special effects and elaborate sets to the loss of emotional content, or apply technology just for technology’s sake. That’s not true here, but Peter Pan is a fantasy and we are primed for color and action that might not fit into the confines of “The Tempest” or “Virginia Wolf.” A big part of theate’rs fun is low budgets forcing creative attacks on author’s insane set descriptions. But take children to this blockbuster as they are not prone to the philosophical mutterings of cynical old men; they rejoice in color and action and just slightly scary situations they can map themselves into. The audience was enthralled and I was, too. I just felt a bit guilty about it.
For more information on The Garden Theatre, please visit www.gardentheatre.org