Summer seems to be the time for indulging in fantasies.
One of these, the perennially popular tale of “Peter Pan,” the boy who refused to grow up, is alive and very active on stage at The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Mich., where it opened Tuesday evening under the direction of Hans Friedrichs.
Written in 1901 by Sir James M. Barrie, the book became a play in 1904, a Disney animated musical in 1953 and a TV/theatrical musical in 1954. The Mary Martin/Cyril Ritchard production came into the homes of America via TV. It has been repeated periodically, and the musical has become a favorite of theater companies across the world.
One of the big plusses for any company with an accommodating stage (high enough to fly) and a large enough budget (flying is never cheap), is seeing Peter and the Darling children float around the nursery and then fly away to Neverland.
It’s not easy to sing strapped in a harness many feet above the stage floor. Just ask petite Emily Fleming as Peter who has mastered the art of graceful ascent and equally graceful flight patterns. And she is just as charming on land, never overdoing the requisite strutting that marks the egotistic Pan, but adding just the right amount of lonely lad. (Note: The role of Peter has traditionally been played by a girl.)
As Peter’s major adversary in Neverland, Robert Newman brings the “crookedest crook” Capt. Hook to believably (and hilariously) blustering reality. Brandishing his glittering hook, he roars at everyone who stands in his way — excepting, of course, the ever-ticking crocodile. Newman is best known for his multi-decade turn as Josh Lewis in the former CBS daytime drama “Guiding Light.” Since that “Light” went out, he has been active on the musical comedy stage in leading roles around the country as well as guest starring on top TV dramas.
To those who know him strictly as a dramatic actor, his turn as Hook might be a genuine surprise. Not only does he have a solid baritone, but a real gift for comedy. He obviously is having a really good time as a swashbuckler and that’s contagious!
Melissa Cotton, who has proved she can dance, is also very solid as Wendy, the oldest Darling child and mother-elect of the Lost Boys. She and her siblings Michael (Josh Meredith) and John (Philip David Black) are undeniably too-tall-for-pre-teens but manage returns to adolescence enthusiastically, although Meredith leans too heavily on being the whiney one.
All flew well after thinking “lovely thoughts,” thanks to Hall Associated Flying Effects.
The only “adults” in the cast are Penelope Alex as Mrs. Darling (with Newman doubling as Mr. Darling) and longtime Barn veteran Dusty Reeds as the grown up Wendy. Both add a welcome anchor of maturity.
The rest of the ensemble is divided into three parts: Lost Boys, Indians and Pirates, with each providing its own level of shouts and growls and whoops. Julie Grisham as Tiger Lily leads the Indians, forever battling Hook and his crew and dancing ferociously.
One of the most popular characters is nothing but a gleam of light, with the voice of a xylophone. Tinker Bell, the mischievous fairy who guards Peter Pan and reacts jealously to Wendy’s arrival, earned extended applause as Peter pleaded with the audience to clap hands if they believed in fairies, thus bringing her back to full LED strength.
Matt Shabala leads The Barn orchestra which has improved since the “42nd Street” fiasco, but still has a way to go. Costuming by Michael Wilson Morgan is appropriately ragged and dirt and the “animals” of Neverland — the Lion, the Kangaroo, the balletic Ostrich (Sarah Bomber) and especially Nana (David Rolando), the Darlings’ nurse/sheepdog — all are garbed in keeping with their kind.
The most creative one, however, is the ferocious croc, body divided into segments with a gaping mouth controlled by a sure-seated Indian. He got a great deal of applause and his return was eagerly awaited, especially since the sound of his ticking flywheel meant frantic flight for Hook.
In the set design by Steven Lee Burright has a clever premise that, for me, unfortunately didn’t work. The entire show is played here in the Darling nursery, with the childrens’ beds pulled back when the action goes to Neverland or the Pirate Ship. I assume the idea was that everything was in their imaginations and therefore they really never left home. An interesting premise which might have worked better if the pastel shades of the nursery scrim walls weren’t always so predominant and the entrances and exits were not the bedroom door (up the stairs), Nana’s doghouse and the nursery fireplace. A more definitive lighting design also would have helped.
Whatever, the score is melodic and humorous, the story is familiar and fun and the cast — young and not-so-young alike — brings out the child in all of us.
“PETER PAN” plays through June 25 in The Barn Theatre on M96 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For performance times and reservations, call (269) 731-4121 or visit www.barntheatre.com.