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In Review > North America

Peter Pan

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON
Bard SummerScape
7/5/18

In Review Bard Peter Pan hdl2 718
William Michals, Rona Figuroa, and Erin Markey in Christopher Alden's production of Peter Pan at Bard SummerScape
Photo by Maria Baranova
In Review Bard Peter Pan lg 718
Jack Ferver and Peter Smith, Tinkerbell and Peter Pan
Photo by Maria Baranova
In Review Bard Pan lg 718
William Michals and Erin Markey
Photo by Maria Baranova

IN THE MANIFOLD CELEBRATIONS of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary year, only Bard’s SummerScape seems to have had the fine idea to revive Peter Pan, the 1950 adaptation of James M. Barrie’s 1904 play, for which the composer had supplied incidental music (seen July 5). Going beyond his commission, Bernstein supplied the words and music for several songs for the show, which ran on Broadway for nearly a year. Hollywood’s Jean Arthur, a non-singer, played Peter Pan, so the title character was given no music, but Bernstein penned numbers for both Marcia Henderson, the Wendy, and film star Boris Karloff, who did the traditional doubling of Wendy’s father, Mr. Darling, and Captain Hook. On the subsequent U.S. tour, Karloff’s roles were taken on by Lawrence Tibbett, the great American baritone, for whose Hook Bernstein wrote a new Soliloquy. But the producers jettisoned much of the music, added some by Alec Wilder and even sidelined the only piece most people recall from the show, Wendy’s beautiful “Dream With Me”.  

This would seem to theatrical property ripe for revival, right? Garth Edwin Sutherland, who had collaborated on reconstructing, arranging and orchestrating Bernstein’s full score as best as possible in 2007, reworked that orchestral version unto a chamber adaptation for use at Bard’s intimate LUMA Theater. So far, so good. While one was grateful for the chance to hear this often inspired score at all, the results were unfortunately undermined by errant, over-resonant sound direction by Stowe Nelson. The murky, hazy resonance—and, in their incarnations as Hook’s pirates, ski masks—largely obscured the choral ensemble of five Bard College students and grads who played the Lost Boys: for one number they held up signs with the lyrics, but it didn’t help. The accomplished performance artist Erin Markey, the Wendy, channeled a childlike timbre directly into a standing mic that diffused her already unsupported, ‘90s college-rock sound but unfortunately did not correct her increasingly errant pitch. Wendy’s final “Dream With Me” was excruciating.

More generally at fault was Christopher Alden’s typically self-indulgent staging, and his adaptation of the dialogue with Peter Littlefield. Alden has offered some fine work over the decades, but too often he suffuses and obscures his material with a personal vision of visual squalor punctuated with kitschy props and costumes plus wannabe-hipster deadpan irony. Alas, that is what this largely dismal evening delivered—an unfortunate choice for presenting a work precious few have ever seen and inherently of such interest to so many. As in so many Alden productions, the leading lady, Wendy, was a weepy victim and the leading male role (Mr. Darling/Hook) a louche caricature of middle-aged toxic masculinity. The dialogue was largely delivered either catatonically (by Markey) or with a veneer of smug, contemporary “casual” irony by the ensemble and non-binary cabaret artist Peter Smith, a game, intriguing presence as Peter Pan. But at least the Bernstein estate now has the materials in place for other mountings.

There were some positive aspects to the show. Michael A. Ferrera’s chamber band of six delivered their contribution very adroitly. JAX Messenger lit keenly the occasionally diverting but generally distracting stage pictures. Marsha Ginsburg’s shark-car whirligig for Peter’s flying was amusing, but otherwise the “abandoned amusement park” concept went nowhere. The costumes by Terese Wadden were deliberately desultory.

Though a fight sequence turned chaotic, Jack Ferver’s witty choreography was largely brilliant; his own performance as Tinkerbelle—clad in a silver space suit topped by a disco ball, Wadden’s finest touch—proved cheeky in several senses, dispensing attitude and quite riveting. Moving with great skill, Rona Figueroa expertly differentiated Mrs. Darling—perhaps the emotional key to this piece—the enigmatic Tiger Lily and the Hook-pursuing Crocodile. When Figueroa took a verse of “Who am I,” one heard a bright-voiced song stylist at work. 

The most enjoyable and accomplished vocalism came from Broadway (and opera) veteran William Michals, who had to work hard for one or two high notes in Hook’s testing Soliloquy—a number made more testing by Alden’s blocking—but otherwise sounded superb, offering both vocal and verbal clarity of a caliber we rarely encounter these days in theater music. To me the score’s musical revelation was the rhythm-driven “Plank Song,” aced by Michals and Ferrera’s band, and the best work the vocal ensemble offered.  —David Shengold 



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