THEATER REVIEW: This ‘Peter Pan’ gives fantasy a good name

“Peter Pan the Musical” / Performing Arts Center at Taconic Hills

KURT ANDERSEN’S NEW BOOK “Fantasyland” traces our American love affair with fantastical untruths from the Pilgrims to the Trump. The author is thorough, clever, timely and scathing about the moribund condition of “truth” and “fact,” then and now.

However, the flip side of our very human gullibility is our marvelous talent for living temporarily in a novel or theater piece, swallowing it like a gulp of fresh air for a few hours or a few days before breathing back to “reality,” somehow the better for it.

“Peter Pan the Musical” lets us do that—almost. It invites us to be simultaneously gullible child and sophisticated, rational adult. (The authors have put the “never” in Peter’s “Neverland,” and Kurt Andersen would approve.)

Among the members of the cast of “Peter Pan, The Musical” are (l to r): Madison Seipp as Wendy, Constance Lopez as Peter Pan, Jacob Corcoran as Michael, Coltin Luckfield as John. Photo by Molinski Studios, Hudson

The J.M. Barrie story was musicalized by a brilliant collection of 20th century musicalizers–Moose Charlap, Jule Styne, Carolyn Leigh, Comden and Green, and, above all, the century’s magical conceptualizer, structurer and stage-realizer, Jerome Robbins.

They did it before conventional musical-theater wisdom demanded something more organic. The form was youthful, loose and free—like Peter. And when Captain Hook acquired a tango number, it did not have to arise from the pirate’s innermost connection with Argentine prostitutes. It was because the character needed a funny number in Act II.

This production by “The Two of Us” (Constance Lopez and Stephen Sanborn) gets the job done. The company (pirates, Indians, children, grownups, a dog and an alligator) could be more choreographically disciplined, but they come across as “real” children, “real” stage-Indians, with an appealing “real” boy, Peter.

Among the children, Jacob Corcoran’s Michael grabs the real-kid honors–along with the smallest of the gang (the one with the green appendage on her head!), who amazingly stays in character, even in mob scenes.

In many productions, the actor playing Captain Hook steals reviewer kudos. Here, Chris Bailey seems a bit like a pirate out of water, especially when asked to sing.

Hook, however, is correct when he steps outside the story to complain that his faithful boatswain, Smee, is often altogether too beloved by hearers of the story. In this production, Frank Leavitt’s Smee is indeed a lovable villain, created by a very skilled actor.

The stage adores a face such as Constance Lopez’s. Hers leaps beautifully across the footlights. Its femininity is greater than the faces of many Peters I have seen, and it softens the character’s loveless, braggart side. Her work is marred only by occasional out-of-tune singing and an odd stiffness about the shoulders that sometimes sabotages the ideal of Peter’s physical freedom.

Yes, you take it for granted that Peter is traditionally played by a small woman. (Go ahead. Look up the why.) The fact that a grown woman can make us believe she is an adolescent boy is an accomplishment; and Lopez accomplishes.

Madison Seipp is a very grounded, Victorian-styled Wendy. Her concept of the role works.

Emma Hvizdak as the Indian princess, Tiger Lily, has one of those supporting roles that make you wish the actress had a bigger part. Her performance suggests that she can sing, dance and act. (My theater companion, in a PC lapse, also notes that Hvizdak has great legs.)

As Liza, the maid, Mary Meyer has obvious ballet-school technique; but a modern director like Sanborn must be asked why she employs it in “Peter Pan.” The mini-ballet stops the action for no apparent reason, and the whole scene begs to be transferred to some other show.

Costumes are attractive and funny. Red socks often grab my eye, and Smee’s, peering out beneath his raggedy bloomers, are appealingly sassy. The stripes of many widths and colors that stretch up, down, and sideways on pirate bodies are a very good thing too.

Sets are simple, lovely, and functional. Especially intriguing are two phantasmagorical tree-creatures, placed on a shore. They exist to hide sneaky actors.

During the wonderfully staged “Ugh-a-Wug” number, Lopez (in her choreographer mode) squeezes in a short movement quote: Jerome Robbins’ legendary knee-walk from “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Or maybe Robbins later borrowed it from himself!) It’s not important, but it’s fun—sort of like Smee’s red socks.

Best of all is the music. There is not a bad song in the score. These songs do that magical trick of being accessible and “tuneful,” while also sounding fresh and inventive. It’s enough to make you join the children to “think lovely thoughts”—and fly.

We get the songs and the incidental music in lively, nicely crafted orchestrations by Albert Sendrey (I think), a talented guy who deserves mention in all “Peter Pan” programs.

Sanborn’s 23-piece orchestra continues to grow in ensemble and in-tuneness. Only occasionally do the players seem to wonder what conductor Sanborn intends for a song’s opening tempo; and, even then, they swiftly locate his meaning. The orchestra is getting that authentic Broadway sound, and that is to be cherished.

Peter Pan lives in the Taconic Hills High School, 73 County Route 11A, Craryville through October 15. Call 518 758-1648. You too, Kurt.

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