Thursday, July 18, 2013
Theater review: Fly tells darker story from Peter Pan
Be prepared to contemplate several of life's questions.
DALLAS Imagination is a wonderful thing, not only giving us the adventurous story of Peter, Wendy, The Lost Boys, and Hook, but also swirling in the mind of Mr. Sellers for 38 of his 48 years, culminating in Fly, a world premiere musical based on J.M. Barrie's novel.
Fly marks the directing debut of Seller, being the Tony Award-winning producer of Rent, Avenue Q and In the Heights. Seller was also a producer for Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo and brought his original idea for the Peter Pan story to Joseph's attention. Having him write a new adaptation and intelligently bringing on board many of the designers and collaborators from In the Heights, both the story and music grew and transformed many times over in rewrites, workshops and presentations from as far back as 2009. Ideas and characters came and went; songs were added and deleted almost daily, until Fly began to bring up the three big questions that intrigued Sellers most: What is the cost of growing up? What is the cost of not growing up? And what do we gain when we embrace growing up and growing older? While not the central theme, those questions float directly or indirectly through each scene and each song of the musical.
Long before we knew Mary Martin or Cathy Rigby, and long before our remembrances and notions of Peter Pan from the stage, television or animated film, there was J.M. Barrie who first wrote of the boy who could fly in his 1902 novel for adults, The Little White Bird. Only a small featured character, Barrie then made Peter the lead in his 1904 stage play Peter Pan, or, The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. After tremendous success, Barrie then adapted and expanded the play into his 1911 novel Peter and Wendy. It is from this classic novel that all future adaptations and reincarnations developed.
I was completely unaware that Leonard Bernstein composed the music and lyrics for the 1950 Broadway adaptation starring Jean Arthur as Peter and Boris Karloff as Hook and Mr. Darling (can you just imagine it!).
But I believe it is Walt Disney's animated film Peter Pan that captures our memories now as it did our imaginations then; the green tights and jaunty feathered cap for Peter, the ever so polite and demure Wendy, and Captain Hook with his curly, black mustache and pompadour hair/wig. Adventures came with meeting The Lost Boys, Tiger Lily and her companions, and of course the Crocodile and ticking clock.
Fly is Rajiv Joseph's first musical creation. It features a more sinister retelling of the Peter Pan story. Joseph felt the darker elements of the original novel had always been leached out of the theatrical and cinematic versions of the story. So he went back to the original source and picked out the essential character elements and ideas that Barrie used to portray escape, loss, choice, family and growing up.
Joseph said, "It's a story about how every child but one grows up. Which is fun, scary, sad and magical. That's what we're playing with here."
But amongst all that is a vagueness I can't quite put a finger on. I've seen the musical twice now and read the many articles, flyers, brochures and playbill but there is still no definitive statement made on the theme of Fly. Even in the After Talks with one or two actors moderating questions or comments from the audience, they kept giving the question back to them or asking, "What do you think?" And, as always, the children held the most insight and saw things I hadn't observed or asked questions I hadn't thought of.
There is the idea of not wanting to be like the adults. A full frontal assault is set on them, one of the best lines of the musical coming from Wendy when she tells Hook, "You grow up, get scared and try to control." Joseph also casts a wider net on the idea of loss than simply the Lost Boys or Wendy's loss of adventure and childhood.
There's the loss of a brother, loss of innocence as children grow up too quickly. A parallel line runs through the musical with the Lost Boys being similar to the Pirates, who are in reality Lost Men. Then there's the idea of choice. Joseph placed this Peter Pan story squarely in the middle of our current society amongst today's adult self-absorption and lack of the skills to be a parent; where adult men and women constantly rail against growing up.
Fly has many comical elements yet there is a constant underlying ache or "malaise" as Hook once utters. In this version, Wendy and John leave that adult world and journey to Neverland with Peter to find their brother Michael. The three are separated before arriving and each in turn has their own exciting and sometimes danger-filled adventure before joining forces to fight the enemy and potentially save the day, as the line goes.
Joseph then made a 180 degree turn away from Peter Pan, its Victoriana and its propriety, away from sweet little fairies and cute, though Caucasian, Indians. He did latch onto Wendy's motherly nature toward Peter and the boys as well as the full circle ending with grownup Wendy allowing her daughter to find her own adventures. And with this notion, Joseph gathered up many of the world's cultural ideas of mother, woman, Mother Earth, and used them to bring ancient ritual to our modern routine. He sets the world of Wendy and her brother smack dab in the middle of life for young teenagers in urban America. The mother/woman theme is core to Fly, with Wendy being the central character more than in any other adaptation. A feared mother-image character fills the stage with her power, but I was confused that she is the one who hands Wendy the tools she needs to answer her own questions on growing into a woman. As in the novel, Fly begins and ends in Wendy's bedroom. I was always intrigued by the grownup Wendy allowing her daughter to leave and find her own adventures; that left a lasting impression on me.
The ideas, themes and images come from places such as Africa, Asia and Brazil and it all starts with sound and light. As the open stage goes dark, the reverberation of drums fill the air along with the clap of thunder and shafts of razor sharp white light flash on a drummer. Young women, known as The Trees, crawl onstage to dance and play African drums such as djembes and congas and other handmade African instruments as both a sign of welcome and warning.
Percussion Supervisor Tim Keiper had the herculean task of teaching the drumming and showing how to maneuver and hold them with authority. The sound and imagery filled the theater majestically and set an emotional tone for the rest of the musical.
And with the sound and light come the habitation of Peter, The Lost Boys and The Trees in a bamboo jungle. Designer Anna Louizos quite spectacularly imagined a bamboo set whose pieces could roll in and out to become the many locations on the island of Neverland. For the curious, it took 28,000 linear feet of Mississippi-grown bamboo to build the walls, inner and outer stairways and landings of the set, and is truly a marvel of design and engineering though I did tire of their frequent movement. To make all the other locations off the island easily attainable, billowing white curtains formed the walls and windows of Wendy's room, with rolling twin bed and bench. Hook's ship came from below and above stage to form the sail-less mast and small cabin, using the stage floor as deck. A tiny rowboat was rope-towed across the stage to simulate movement on the water.
The next visual to mesh Wendy and John's urban world to the nature of the island is in the costume design by Marina Draghici. The first seen are The Trees, clothed in a two-piece swimsuit design of draped beige-tone material to represent skins or hides. Most had painted day-glo orange symbols on their skin with wildly tousled and upswept hair, adorned with strings and sticks. Draghici clothed Wendy and John in modern dress of knee shorts, T-shirt, over-sized Rugby shirt for Wendy (its number being her real age!), sloppy sweater and socks. Boots and tennis shoes were added for their adventure, and as they lingered on the island, Wendy became more "native" with face and body paint and shirt tied to her waist.
Peter and The Lost Boys were a glorious mix of urban hip-hop and ragamuffin mess with denim, leather, boots, fingerless gloves, wool caps and things hanging off everywhere. Even Hook got into the urban look, a slovenly Mad Max in leather, dirty tank top, dark jeans, boots and one crazy, futuristic metal hand instead of hook. His pirates were refugees from a bad backyard barbeque –- Hawaiian shirt, ball cap, tennis head band, torn shirts and T's, striped work out pants and only Smee in traditional attire of thin-striped crew T and black tri-corner hat. Tink was a vision in shrouds of green and metallic green-gold fabric with glittery green makeup. You have to see her stilettos without heels; it is a balancing feat I would not want to attempt, but they look amazing. I will leave the costuming of Mother figure, Mami Wata, without description, for it is so symbolic of her character that it might spoil your reaction to her appearance.
The lighting design by Howell Brinkley was as magical as Neverland itself, with a background of continuous starry sky, sometimes including a full moon and sometimes a "hidden in plain sight" mother symbol set in a multi-colored orb. Wendy's bedroom was simply lit; Neverland was dimmer with the addition of light fog detailing the piercing diagonal side lights. The arrival of Tink came with proscenium arch strobe lights on both sides and the ocean was bathed in somber dull blues and whites.
And what good story about a boy who could fly would be complete without ... flying!
Aerial Design by Pichon Baldinu with Flying Effects by the infamous Flying By Foy did not disappoint with sophisticated aerial feats and staging. This was no fly from one side of the stage to the other. Peter, Wendy, John, Tink and Mami Wata soared beyond our sights high into the stage's fly space. They came in at angles, flew out over the front rows and then rose as they swung back. There was much tumbling and turning, being hooked from behind or in front. Each actor seemed completely at ease, having clocked in many hours of practice in NYC. I cannot imagine the technical difficulty of blocking aerial patterns around shifting scenery and intricate lighting.
For the techies out there, everything was choreographed via sketches, modeling, and what they call "aerographics," using millions of computer data input and hundreds of hours of human effort to maneuver the actors with the help of winches, pulleys and a special track system – all software driven.
The interesting part of the actual rigging was that the designer and director decided not to hide them visually; we could all see Mary Martin's wires anyway. These were ropes and wiring with big silver carabiners that either The Trees or the actors themselves hooked onto harnesses made to blend into their costumes. After seeing them once, the rigging became just another set piece or prop.
Music by Bill Sherman with lyrics by Rajiv Joseph and Kirsten Childs held rock, pop and hip-hop flavors. The songs were upbeat and current, telling and relevant, funny and satirical and the theme song for Fly was nicely memorable. As they were adding and deleting songs right up to opening night, a list of musical numbers is not included in the playbill so I do not have their names (but I'll guess).
Wendy's song while being "Grounded" set her as a typical young teen girl pushing for some independence. The Pirates had a fun song about killing Hook, which he twists into killing Peter. Hook also had a slightly non-PC though still hilarious song called "I Miss My Hand" –- ouch. Tink sang of the guilt she feels for her bad choices while angry with Peter, and Mami Wata siren-sang her prey into her deadly world. My favorite though was a simple duet between John and Lost Boy Slightly whom John believes might be his missing brother Michael. Both sat on the ship's bench and sang about remembrances and realizations, a simple and heartfelt moment. And Hook had a heartbreaker song of remorse and regret while working up the courage to finally kill Peter. As he too came to some realizations, he visualizes what his life might have been and I actually felt sorry for that mean old villain!
Besides the large quantity of musical instruments onstage, directly underneath the downstage area were eight more musicians who supported those onstage and made the music that much more full and rich. Music Director and Conductor Kurt Crowley was the only one seen slightly above the stage level, playing keyboard with a computer monitor to his left. At intermission I walked down and peered in to see a beautiful wooden percussion instrument like a xylophone, chimes, more djembes, several guitars, a double bass and more. The musicians were packed into that tiny space and the sound that came from so few held much grandeur and became an essential part of the musical's power.
The eight female dancers and one principal drummer were, for me, the support and conscience of all the island's inhabitants. Maybe that is why they were named The Trees, sturdy and all seeing. Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography was a fun blend of modern and hip-hop with some ballet overtones. The dancers were in sync most of the time, executing leaps, falls, rolls and turns deftly and in precision. They held triple duty as set piece movers, rigging support and aerial assistants. Though they were well-choreographed to supplement the actors, each shone in their own right while being memorable as a whole. Paula Green led the drumming onstage with powerful authority, keeping the others together rhythmically, making for dramatic percussion moments that rocked the house.
The ensemble of pirates held the best comedy of the musical. Having been stolen from their futile lives by Hook, they now regret their foolish choices and want to go back home to "grow up." Within the group, both Patrick Richwood as Cook and Eddie Korbich as Smee stood out for their brilliant comedic timing and sense of their characters.
Richwood had a short featured scene where he resembled a human rubber band he was so agile and deft in his movements. His vocal ability and Southern drawl was spot on hilarious. Richwood was a finely-tuned, well-oiled comedy machine and well worth seeing for his short time onstage. Korbich played Smee as the loyal but slightly daffy sidekick to Hook and you could tell he was having a blast in the role. He too has the richness of great comedy movement and timing, always knowing how long to hold a pose or a line or finding the perfect facial expression. His scenes with Hook were a thing of beauty as Korbich understood the long relationship between Smee and the captain and so made the tiniest of gestures mean so much more. Korbich is a master craftsman and was so much fun to watch.
Marcy Harriell played Mami Wata with powerful grace and elegant beauty. Though deemed an evil character, her song to Wendy on becoming a woman was empowering and soulful and her voice filled the theater in deep rich majesty. I did have some confusion with her character though. Why would she be so reviled and feared, almost taking Wendy away, then expand to such a powerful mother image? These and many other questions lay unanswered within the musical.
The five Lost Boys were a wonderful ensemble to watch as you know they were having the time of their lives. Each was talented, showed great stage presence and supported the Neverland and ship scenes well. As young as they were, their voices were strong with no weak notes amongst them. Their dancing was fast, complicated and nicely done. Jace Duncan stood out as a dancer with amazing agility and great hip-hip moves. Turns out he competes in one of the top hip-hop companies in the state, so no wonder.
Megan Weed as Tink only touched the stage floor once if I recall, spending her time flittering down or across, or hovering above the scene's action as the full-sized vision of a tiny fairy in a shell. Weed played Tink as a brassy, independent companion to Peter with a touch of Valley Girl vocal quality mixed with some East Coast sass. Her vocal quality in her dialogue and songs was some of the clearest and precise I have heard. I anticipated her every entrance and enjoyed her characterization immensely.
Hook is just a mean guy with a big chip on his shoulder – period. Bradley Dean played that up nicely, but it was his attention to the small details of Hook's personality that attracted me most. Each small gesture, subtle facial expression (that still reached to the back of the house), and perfectly timed pause gave the audience more insight into the man longing for revenge and his hand. I loved that Hook was more three dimensional than the flamboyant captain of former versions. Dean had a gritty and deeply evil quality when he spoke of Peter, yet he could instantly yield to regret and loneliness as the scene required. This Hook was also hilarious in his buffoonery, agile in his swordsmanship and gentle in his final scene's choice. Dean had an alluring tenor voice that wrapped around his musical numbers like soft velvet. Being one of a few who have worked with all the musical's reincarnations from its inception, you can see Dean's deep engrossment in his role. He knows this character well and his portrayal was a standout highlight of the production.
Director Seller had mentioned that he never "got" the character of Peter Pan by watching a middle-age woman fly through the air in green tights. And DTC's Artistic Director, Kevin Moriarty, said, "One way in which theater captures audience members' imagination is by reflecting their own experiences back at them. (For young people) this is even more so if child characters are played by children." And so, out of a cast of 26, eight are children in the 10 to 15-year-old range, and the quality of talent, noted experience and caliber of performance was astounding. They come from all over the country, some with less experience and some true veterans. And, for the first time in a major stage production, Peter and Wendy are portrayed by age-appropriate youth actors. This puts great pressure and responsibility on each of them in holding the lead roles.
Wendy's brother John, played by Austin Karkowsky, is a typical older brother who has fights with his sister but also protects her when she gets into trouble or danger. Karkowsky made John lovable and a bit nerdish or shy. He had a wonderful, soft vocal quality just right for his character and his scenes with Wendy seemed perfectly normal and real, the sign of a good actor.
At age 12, Grant Venable has the great joy and arduous task of portraying what is usually the title character. An obviously experienced stage actor, Venable gave the musical a swashbuckling Peter Pan of sorts, fearless in his actions, never sorry for hurting anyone, with only his pleasure and fun in mind. This is a more serious Peter than we've come to expect. While he doesn't mind having others join in his adventures, when things don't go his way, he's gone. Under Seller's direction Venable shifted into a sort of anti-hero. You want to like him but he is so distant and hard to read, much like so many reflective young teens today. I know there will be young boys in the audience who will relate to this Peter Pan. Venable had a wonderful singing voice, full and clearly understandable. He seemed a pro up in the air and I could see him guiding and assisting his fellow actors during the aerial scenes for the safety of all. That and his nice acting ability made him a good choice to play the boy who won't grow up.
The Wendy of this musical is nothing like the one we think we know. She's not proper, doesn't care what other people think, talks back and gets into trouble at school and at home. Here, Wendy is more independent, more contemporary in dress and behavior, and will be more identifiable to young girls in the audience. Playing this modern young teen is pre-teen Isabela Moner, an 11-year-old actress who brings a fiery toughness to the role. Knowing the Wendy of past productions, she did not think she'd be right for the role, being Hispanic and a bit small for the part. But she also fell in love with this Wendy and excited to see that she reacted much the same as Moner would in similar situations. That connection to her character was evident onstage as Moner carried the lead role realistically and with a sense of conviction. Somewhat like Joan de Arc, Moner presented herself as a leader and you believed her intensity and desire in each scene. Vocally, Moner had a soft but full touch and each song was energetic and heartfelt. She exuded her joy and excitement in playing this character.
When asked about Wendy's decision to go home and grow up, she said, "We should look at growing up as blossoming and not so much a complete change." With that kind of worldly intelligence and insight, and her obvious talent, the casting of Moner must have been a no-brainer.
Fly and Dallas Theater Center's world premiere production encompasses everything good theater should offer –- an entertaining performance that will enthrall children and adults, great performances from some exceptionally talented actors both young and not so young alike, exhilarating music and memorable songs, even if you can't whistle them up the aisle, and most importantly, themes and ideas to ponder, question and talk about long after the theater empties and the lights go out. If you are willing to let go of preconceived notions of the story and are open to a new experience, this musical lends endless possibilities for creative thought and exploration.
After the run here, there are currently no plans for the show, but word has it that "given the creative talents and Seller's involvement, the show is likely to get a look for a future life." With a better understanding on the purpose of The Pirates and their parallel to The Lost Boys, I see a production that has finally found a good storyline track to follow and develop. It would be a shame to miss a rare opportunity to see such a tremendous work at the beginning of its potential. You could be one of those to say, "I saw Fly in Dallas way back when..."
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