If asked what songs they associate with Peter Pan, most people would likely answer with “I’m Flying,” “I Won’t Grow Up,” or “I’ve Gotta Crow” from the Broadway/TV musical (music and lyrics by “Moose” Charlap and a quintet of others), or “Second Star To The Right,” “Following The Leader,” or “You Can Fly!” (music and lyrics by the Sammys (Fain and Cahn) among others). Songs that probably don’t pop into folks’ heads are “Who Am I?”, “Build My House,” and “Spring Will Come Again” (music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by … Leonard Bernstein).

Yes, in 1950, songs and background music were added to J.M. Barrie’s original 1904 script by the then 32-year-old Bernstein for a Broadway production, one which has since been eclipsed by the far better-known 1953 Walt Disney animated film and the 1954 Broadway musical comedy (starring Mary Martin, and oft revived with either Sandy Duncan or Cathy Rigby).

The Santa Barbara Theatre has rescued Bernstein’s Peter Pan (which originally starred Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff) from obscurity, and anyone curious about the “missing” Peter has a few more days to catch its first American production in fifty-eight years.

The plusses in SBT’s staging are many, beginning with a saucy, spunky Peter portrayed by 18-year-old Corina Boettger.  Besides the rarity of seeing the role played by an actress under the age of fifty, SBT’s Peter Pan features a stellar turn by Robert Yacko as Captain Hook, whose motto here iis “Eat blood, drink blood, think blood.”  Less broadly drawn that the most famous Hook of all, Cyril Ritchard, Yacko’s Captain is both dastardly and deliciously funny, especially in “Hook’s (comically operatic) Soliloquy,” in which he bemoans the fact that “no little children love me” and that when children play Peter Pan, “they’d rather be a Smee than Hook. They force the baby to be a Hook.  The baby!”  (The splendid Yacko also doubles as Mr.  Darling.) Sarah Bierstock does fine, assured work as a psychologically deeper than usual Wendy, and lends her lovely soprano to “Who Am I?”, “Dream With Me,” and “Spring Will Come Again.” (Interestingly, in Bernstein’s Peter Pan, Peter doesn’t sing a note.)

Supporting performances are uniformly fine, beginning with the always wonderful Carolyn Hennesy, who embues Mrs. Darling with warmth and depth (as well as providing the tale’s offstage narration).  Not surprisingly, the comic band of pirates (headed by an amusing Chet Carlin as Smee) get the show’s biggest laughs, and the children (Jordan Lemmond as John and Ryan Dalforno as Michael, plus a dozen pintsized Lost Boys, Pirates, and Mermaids) are a energetic bunch each and every one.  Miller James makes for a perfectly loveable canine nanny Nana and Sara Nachlis gets laughs merely by crawling across the stage as the tick-tocking crocodile.  The pirates, all of whom merit a thumbs-up (or should that be a hooks-up?), also include James as Gentleman Starkey), Frank Artusio (Cookson), R. Steven Jones (Bill Jukes), David King (Cecco), and Trevor Dow as a cute-as-a-noodle Noodler.  Completing the excellent adult cast are Deborah M. Bertling, Angelica Lawrence, and Matthew Tavianini.

Albert Ihde’s direction is pretty much spot-on, never letting characters become caricatures, and impeccable musical direction is provided by Richard Weiss, with Alexander Frey conducting a symphonic seventeen-piece orchestra. Gary Wissman’s sets, cast member James’ costumes, Michael Philippi’s lighting (especially his twinkly green Tinker Bell), and David B. Marling’s sound design are all first-rate.  Carrie Diamond has choreographed a number of lively dance sequences, particularly a drunken pirates’ jig-gone-wild and an energetic “Dance Of The Lost Boys.” Sword master Tim Weske has staged an exciting shipboard sword fight, and Diana Leidel’s lovely magic lantern paintings (projected between scenes) give the production an appropriately early 20th Century feel.

The most thrilling (and eagerly anticipated) aspect of this or any other Peter Pan is without a doubt the flying, and SBT’s Peter Pan does not disappoint.  With “Flying By Foy” (whose late founder Peter Foy performed the same duties for all four of the most famous Peters from 1950 to the most recent Broadway revival), seeing Peter and the three Darling children take to the skies still evokes a feeling of wonder (including wondering how such thread-thin cords can possibly suspend the actors without breaking).

Interestingly, Leonard Bernstein’s Peter Pan’s least successful element is its musical score. Not that Bernstein’s music is not beautiful. It most certainly is, alternately symphonic and operatic.  Still, for audiences accustomed to the bright, jaunty and instantly hummable Charlap and Disney versions, Bernstein’s score is a bit of a downer, and a Peter who doesn’t sing?  There’s something missing here. 

Still, the many small children who attended Tuesday’s matinee remained enthralled (and as quiet as mice) throughout even the more dour musical sequences, tribute to the power of the original tale and the performances of the actors on stage.

Musical theater aficionados will want to see this Peter Pan if for no other reason than to see Bernstein’s Peter given a first-class (and rarer than rare) staging, and parents will be glad to give their children the holiday thrill of seeing Peter fly, and shouting out “I believe in fairies” to save Tinker Bell’s life.  Though given a choice, I’d prefer a revival of Moose Charlap’s Peter Peter, SBT’s production of Bernstein’s long-lost Broadway adaptation is nevertheless a pleasant holiday surprise.

(The lively children’s ensemble features Channing Fisher, Margaret Gobbell, Max Gobbell, Olivia Le Sage, Aaron Linker, Malcolm McCarthy, Nolan McCarthy, Tessa Miller, Hanna Robinson, Avery Sorenson, Talya Steinberg, and Sarina Wasserman.)

Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara.

–Steven Stanley
December 23, 2008
                                                       Photos: David Bazemore

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