As I sat staring heavenward during the curtain call for Pioneer Theatre Company’s Peter Pan, glittering pixie dust raining down on the orchestra section, a horrifying realization gripped me: I had finally grown up into a jaded adult.
There could not, of course, have been a more appropriate place to come to that realization. A staging of Jerome Robbins’ ever-popular 1954 musical, Peter Pan tells J.M. Barrie’s story of an orphaned, perpetually pre-adolescent elf who decides never to grow up. It has become a classic children’s tale of adventure, and its theatrical incarnation has delighted hundreds of thousands. More specifically, it was a place where magic appeared before your eyes, with actors soaring over the stage on wires as they thought their happy thoughts.
But this Peter Pan, charming and entertaining though it might generally be, doesn’t feel like magic. It walks an awkward tightrope between broad musical spectacle and kid-friendly energy, often finding both while working visibly hard to do so. Expending this much energy should result in something more than … nice.
The casting certainly gets things started in the right direction. Diminutive Broadway veteran Kirsten Wyatt takes on the title role, soaring into the turn-of-the-century London nursery of Darling children Wendy (Becky Watson), John (Christopher Schram) and Michael (played on alternate performances by Tait Meskey and Andrew Thomas Pehrson). Away they soon go to Neverland, where the Lost Boys await a mother figure and where Captain Hook (Max Robinson) and his band of pirates are always ready to instigate some sort of mischief.
As a text, the musical Peter Pan is already an odd-duck collection of songs, mixing tunes by the team of Carolyn Leigh and Mark Charlap with those penned by Jule Styne, Adolph Green and Betty Comden. The Leigh/Charlap numbers have always been the show-stoppers—“I’ve Got to Crow” and “I’m Flying”—with “Hook’s Waltz” the only other number that doesn’t feel like filler. The performers here are generally in fine voice, but the score doesn’t place too many demands on a singer. With little to offer that you’ll be humming on the way out of the theater—and a story already imbedded in our collective pop culture consciousness thanks to Walt Disney—there’s not likely to be much sense of discovery here.
So director Charles Morey does what any smart artist would do with the same raw material: He tries to knock you out with the production values. Much of the time he succeeds, rolling out a series of spectacular George Maxwell sets including the Darling nursery, the Lost Boys’ underground lair and Hook’s multi-part pirate ship. Timothy Albrecht’s choreography delivers slick, engaging movement, Carol Wells-Day’s costumes submit to the practical needs of flying harnesses with a fantasy flair and Daniel Beecher’s work beneath the oversized suits of Nana the dog and the ticking crocodile adds to the whimsy.
And just in case there’s a concern that the show won’t be served up with enough gusto, there’s Max Robinson as Hook. Anyone familiar with the PTC veteran’s work could have told you back when the season was first announced that he would be cast as the pirate—it’s hard to imagine a role besides Harold Hill more perfectly suited to his inimitable, larger-than-life Max Robinson-ness. As an actor he’s got a keen sense for when hamming it up is the right choice, and here that sense contributes to picture-perfect storybook villainy.
Robinson and his castmates do enough with the show’s grand scale that Peter Pan is likely to appeal to the younger audience members it’s targeting. But eye candy only takes a show so far, and Peter Pan generally feels like a satisfying diversion adults would enjoy primarily because the child sitting next to them is enjoying it. Like The Nutcracker, it’s an intro to the arts that tries to dazzle youngsters while patting them on the head reassuringly.
Maybe that should be enough. Maybe this show should pull at the eternal child in each of us when our applause brings Tinkerbell back to life, or when Peter swoops into the audience during that curtain call. But off to the side, you can see the stagehand yanking on the cable that lifts Kirsten Wyatt into the air. This is light stuff we’re talking about here. We shouldn’t see all the wires.