Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Measuring One's Artistic Strength On A Peter Meter

The Peter Pan syndrome affects men of all ages.
  • Little boys gleefully spread their arms and jump off their beds, hoping they'll be able to fly. 
  • Many gay men cling to a "boy culture" in which they can make believe they are eternally young, beautiful, and desired by other men.
  • Some middle-aged men transform their midlife crisis into an excuse to act as if they're still hanging out with their fraternity brothers from college. 
  • Many senior citizens like to think that boner pills like Viagra and Cialis are contemporary versions of the Fountain of Youth
  • I remember how my father was stunned to realize that he had turned 70 (I'm closing in on that marker myself)
Dramatic portrayals of Peter Pan achieve varied levels of success. Among the popular musical versions of Peter Pan that have been screened for television audiences are the 1960 production (starring Mary Martin, Cyril Ritchard, and Sondra Lee).

Less familiar is the 1976 made-for-television version of Peter Pan with songs created by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse that starred Mia Farrow and Danny Kaye.

Both of these productions featured actors (and directors) who knew what to do with the flamboyant character of Captain Hook.

Although the most recent effort may have drawn the largest television audience in Peter Pan's history, it failed to win over many viewers. It didn't take long for the folks at Saturday Night Live to spoof NBC's attempt at broadcasting live musical theatre with Cecily Strong as Allison Williams and James Franco as Christopher Walken.

Seen by an estimated 9.21 million viewers, Peter Pan Live! drew these snarky comments from my friend Michael (a former ballet dancer whose razor-sharp analyses of performance techniques practically demand to be read with severely arched eyebrows).
“In the live television production of Peter Pan Thursday night, the role of Peter was played by the popular and trending Allison Williams, and the role of Captain Hook was, for some reason, played by Christopher Walken. Walken had undergone complete spinal replacement surgery only four hours prior to showtime, released from the hospital from what would have normally been a 13-month recovery period in bed and extensive daily physical rehabilitation, took a cab straight to the theatre where (absent any physical ability to move or conduct facial expression) he admirably ‘went on with the show.’ Walken made the decision to forgo all rehearsal and direction, and perform almost the entire role sitting down and in a nap. Walken was not informed that ‘tonight’ was the actual production and proceeded to ‘mark’ the entire three-hour live show speaking his lines and glancing at cue cards while checking voicemail, monitoring stocks on Android, and taking back-to-back calls from his agent and publicist. Walken mysteriously and tragically died just minutes before curtain and the brave decision was made to scotch tape open the actor’s eyes while a very slim person animated the dead Walken from behind through the entire performance and said as many of the lines as could be recalled from childhood bedtime hour.

As for Williams in the elfish, wicked, nymphy, naughty role of Pan, Williams made certain that the audience at any given point throughout the play could forget she was actually still there, actually still in the show. Okay, that was cruel. The truth is, in several interviews the following morning, Williams admitted that she ‘never really got’ that the character of Peter was a wild, untamed and emotionally torn flying spirit, but instead based her interpretation of the role on a favorite aunt employed for over 35 years as a filing clerk at a small, local publishing house. Okay, that was unfair. More than a few viewers feel certain Williams really just wanted to make sure that we always knew it was her, and not really Peter Pan onstage at all times through the performance. And I did. At all times I completely believed it was Allison Williams I was watching and not Peter Pan.”
Allison Williams and Christopher Walken in Peter Pan Live!

J. M. Barrie's 1904 play entitled Peter Pan; or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (as well as his 1911 novel, Peter and Wendy) introduced Peter Pan to the world. In recent years, a cottage industry has developed around creating prequels to Barrie's original. Next summer, Hugh Jackman will star as the infamous pirate, Blackbeard, in Pan.

In 2004, Johnny Depp and Kate Winslett scored a major triumph in Finding Neverland. A musicalized stage version of the film opened in Leicester England in September 2012, had its American premiere at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts during the summer of 2014 and is headed for the Lunt Fontanne Theatre (where it will open on Broadway in March of 2015 with Matthew Morrison in the role of J. M. Barrie).

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In recent years, one of the most successful prequels to Peter Pan has been Rick Elice's adaptation of a 2006 novel written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson with musical interludes by Wayne Barker. When I first saw Peter and the Starcatcher at the 1,667-seat Curran Theatre during its national tour, I was dismayed that such an intimate show was being staged in such a large theatre.

The irony is that the success of Peter and the Starcatcher began in small theatres scattered around Manhattan before the production moved uptown to Broadway's 1,069-seat Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Thankfully, TheatreWorks has chosen to mount Peter and the Starcatcher in the 425-seat Lucie Stern Theatre as its 2014 holiday show. The results are at once deeply gratifying, deliciously silly, and highly entertaining.

The Act II opening number from Peter and the Starcatcher
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In his program note, Artistic Director Robert Kelley (who has directed three productions of Peter Pan at TheatreWorks) writes:
"Peter and the Starcatcher astonished me on Broadway. I knew immediately that it must come to TheatreWorks. Aside from its infectious humor and exuberant theatricality, this vision of Peter's backstory overflows with insight and revelation. At its core the original lost boy still stands, but beside him is an equally intriguing creature named Molly. If not in name then certainly in spirit she is the precursor of all Wendys to come, a bright, inquisitive, independent, and open-hearted girl on the brink of womanhood, a fitting proto-feminist descendant of Mary Lennox (The Secret Garden), Jo March (Little Women), and even Emma Woodhouse of Jane Austen's eponymous novel, all of whom have graced our stage. Written for daughters as well as sons, the play is hers as well, made all the stronger as she grows up before our eyes."  
Adrienne Walters (Molly) and Tim Homsley (Boy/Peter) in a scene
from Peter and the Starcatcher (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
"For me, Peter Pan had once been primarily about Peter, his joy of life, his rejection of adulthood, his triumph over evil. But now, reflected in the light of this starcatching girl, I finally understood Peter's orphan loneliness, his quest for family, and the regret of his lost chance at love.  All those threads are elements of the original play as well, woven into its subtext, as much a part of Peter as the shadow he rescues to begin Barrie's tale. Written a century apart, these two plays intertwine tonight, as do their eternal partners, Molly and Peter: a girl born to soar, a boy born to fly, both destined to wonder forever what might have been."
Tim Homsley (Boy/Peter), Patrick Kelly Jones (Black Stache), and
Adrienne Walters (Molly) headline Peter and the Starcatcher
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Part of the joy of experiencing Peter and the Starcatcher in a small theatre is being able to hear the jokes, catch each groaning string of alliteration, savor the numerous topical references that are peppered throughout the script, and cringe at some of Elice's wondrous puns. Some of this is helped by the slightly slower tempo of the TheatreWorks production and the intimacy of the auditorium. The action is further enhanced by Kelley's smart use of the Lucie Stern's elevated mini-balconies that frame the stage.

This show requires a tightly-knit ensemble that can rapidly shift characters and manage a multitude of costume changes, perform tricks of stagecraft, and hustle props while allowing the audience to warm to their individual portrayals. Whether one looks to Ron Campbell's Mrs. Bumbrake (a drag masterpiece), Suzanne Grodner's hilarious Smee, or the spirited swashbuckling and merry mugging of Patrick Kelly Jones as Black Stache, one could not find a more appealing team of clowns to push the narrative forward in Elice's prequel to Peter Pan.

Add in the performances of Will Springhorn Jr. as Slank, Darren Bridgett as Lord Leonard Aster, Jeremy Kahn as Prentiss, Cyril Jamal Cooper as Ted, and Kenny Toll as Captain Scott and the storytelling floats on a comedic cloud of craft and magic throughout the evening (Michael Gene Sullivan shines in a variety of roles ranging from the orphanage's Grempkin to a fighting prawn).

Best of all, Tim Homsley's Boy/Peter and the work of Adrienne Walters as Molly added such a tone of honesty, innocence, and awakening to the proceedings that I found myself developing a lump in my throat as the backstories for some of Barrie's famous characters started to emerge and begin to mesh with each other.

Smee (Suzanne Grodner) and Black Stache (Patrick Kelly Jones) are up
to no good in Peter and the Starcatcher  (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Special credit goes to Joe Ragey (scenic design), B. Modern (costume design), and William Liberatore (musical direction), whose artistic contributions helped give this production a marvelous sense of buoyancy. Performances of Peter and the Starcatcher continue through January 3 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto (click here to order tickets).

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