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Review: 'Peter Pan' encourages adventure for all ages

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Richard Wesley, as Captain Hook, center, is carried through the forest by his band of pirates in a scene from “Peter Pan” at Shenandoah University. The play continues today at 8 p.m. — Courtesy Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre


By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

'Peter Pan,' the last show in the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre, is a tale theatergoers of all ages can enjoy.

Even before the curtain opens, as the first notes of the overture escape the skilled pit orchestra in the form of excited trills from clarinets and flutes, the experience is pure magic.

The curtain parts to reveal a fairy tale house, looking like it sprouted to life from the colored cardboard of a make believe doll house. It shows only one room -- the nursery, where Wendy, John and Michael not only sleep but also play out the stories Wendy dreams up to tell them. It's these stories that draw Peter Pan to their window sill, and it's these stories that change the lives of the Darling family forever.

Based on the stage play by J.M. Barrie, the musical takes flight with music by Mark Charlap and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh.

Following a tradition dating back to the first stage performance of "Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" in 1904, the roll of the title character is played by a woman, Robin Higgenbotham, who in the spritely roll performs to expectations.

Those who have seen the 1960 film of the stage play starring Mary Martin surely will make distinctions, but as the "boy who wouldn't grow up," Higgenbotham's Peter acts both younger and less creepy than Martin's, which seems to play greater tribute to early drafts of the original play that featured trickster Peter as more villain than hero in a story that did not yet include Captain Hook.

Richard Wesley, also per tradition, plays competing roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. He first huffs and puffs his way on stage as the stress-filled yet slightly cowardly father at stage right, and later enters from stage left lounging on a chaise as the pirate captain carried by his bumbling band of criminals. As Hook, he's also cowardly, bellowing with terror whenever Crocodile, played by Abbey Elliot, wheels itself across the stage to the persistent ticking of a clock counting down to Hook's inevitable demise.

But, coward or not, Westley's Hook is a menacing force, managing to terrify and terrorize the island's resident Indians and Lost Boys, though they outnumber him and his band three to one.

As Tiger Lily, Vassiliki Ellwood provides an interesting contrast to Peter in her command of the Indians, portraying herself more part of her people than above them. Peter rescues her from pirates for seemingly no greater reason than that he can and that pirates are a worthier foe than "redskins," but as a result, she saves him from the pirates, and the two become fast allies.

The set by William Pierson is efficient with movable windows and secret passages helping characters escape the stage without notice. Lighting by Wm. McConnell Bozman and costumes by Jennifer Flitton Adams become characters of their own throughout the play, a small green light darting around the walls to represent fairy Tinker Bell, and costumed animals filling out a cast of community children, Shenandoah University students and professional actors.

Matthew Gose's stunning choreography elicits smiles and laughs from the audience as often as the script does, mixing effortlessly with Flying by Foy's professional flying and sword-fighting choreography.

Alex Bailey's Wendy wants desperately to be a grownup and a mother, but doesn't want to have to give up the spontaneity and wonderment of childhood in order to achieve it. In Never Never Land, she achieves a perfect compromise by acting the part of "mother" to the Lost Boys while still enjoying the adventures of sword play and the freedom to serve lemon meringue pie for dinner.

Sean Dunavant's John is a proper English gentleman-in-training, and Jordan Armel's Michael is polite with a streak of cheeky, but both are underused in a story that tends to lose sight of them too often among the Lost Boys.

Conversely, Sarah Cammarata as the Darlings' maid Liza, who inadvertently absorbs the last of the fairy dust as the three children depart through the nursery window, has a greater role than expected. Making a comedic appearance in the second act drifting aimlessly over Peter's island with her feather duster, she then stars in the musical's sole ballet, with dance partners Rachael Haber, Camille Johnson and Brittany Martin, respectively as Lion, Kangaroo and Ostrich.

It's a curious respite from the rest of the storyline, but finds greater meaning later. As the curtain closes on the final scene of Peter's return to the Darling home and success in encouraging Wendy's daughter Jane to come with him to Never Never Land, Liza's story finds its conclusion:

Though Wendy proclaims that as an adult she's too old for such adventures anymore -- ever so much older than 20 -- the audience cannot help but remember Liza and how she found her way to Never Never Land without escort and discovered her own adventure simply by being open to the possibility.

As the curtain falls on this summer's musical season, "Peter Pan" stresses that no one is too old to visit Never Never Land, as long as they believe they can.

"Peter Pan" will continue at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre on Saturday at 8 p.m. and will run through Aug. 5. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, at 7 p.m. Sunday and at 2:30 on Aug. 1 and 2. Tickets are $28 for Friday and Saturday performances, $27 for other performances and $25 for children and seniors during matinees. For more information, call 665-4569.






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