During the opening night performance of the University of Montana Department of Drama/Dance’s Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, the audience was strictly divided between those who believe in fairies and those who were fairly bored. During the would-be dramatic scene in which Tinker Bell—played by a sparkly green light—faces death after saving Peter from poison, Peter turns to the crowd and asks desperately, “Do you believe in fairies? If you do believe in fairies, then clap your hands!” The grade schoolers seated in front of me, clearly concerned, pounded their palms together emphatically. The college students behind me, however, continued their relentless snickering: “Let the little bitch die.”
The point is that there’s not really any middle ground in this performance. The timeless classic—which has been the foundation of more remakes and adaptations than Joan Rivers’ chin—is popular because it has a basic story line that speaks to children and a subtext that challenges adults to rediscover their youthful spirits. Peter loses his shadow in the bedroom of three British children, Wendy, John and Michael, and when he comes back to collect it he entices his new friends to join him in what the program notes call the Never Land. In that fantasy setting, orphaned children led by Peter—the Lost Boys—are determined to never grow old and to foil Peter’s arch nemesis, Captain Hook. When Wendy grows tired of playing mum to Peter and his posse, and wishes to return home, she’s faced with the dilemma—stay in one world and remain as carefree as a child forever, or lose all that innocence and whimsy and grow old.
In John Card and Trevor Nunn’s adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s original play, the adult themes lurk much like the story’s tick-tocking crocodile, but they never fully materialize in UM’s production. This is a matter of emphasis and atmosphere, and whereas some versions of Peter Pan choose darker, more complex interpretations with the purpose of introducing even the grumpiest of curmudgeons to their inner children (film versions like Finding Neverland and Hook immediately come to mind), this show appears to intentionally settle for pleasing the tykes.
That’s not altogether a bad thing—the children in attendance clearly loved the approach, based on the countless “oohs” and “ahhs” overheard throughout—but it registers as a disappointment considering UM’s past success at bridging such gaps. Last holiday season the department produced another timeless classic geared toward a family audience, A Christmas Carol, directed by Greg Johnson. Under Johnson’s control the tale sidestepped the stale and the superficial and sneaked right into being a moody, murky and seamless representation of an age-old story. It didn’t matter how many winters you’d been dragged to watch Ebenezer Scrooge meet his three ghosts; that production—with its elaborate tiered set and deftly blocked cast—transported audiences into the belly of a classic.
Peter Pan has the same trimmings, but not quite the same flavor. In order for the play to connect to all ages, it must force the audience to disengage from reality—to believe, as Peter would say—and this performance is too uneven to pull off that magic trick. While it’s cool to watch Peter and the children fly across the stage, it’s hard not to be at least a little cynical when the cables connected to the characters are so distractingly evident that everyone looks like hunchbacks. While the climactic sword fight between Peter (Tom Dickens) and Hook (Jared Van Heel) is outstanding and intricate, it leaves one wondering why other scenes, such as Peter’s initial arrival or the children’s return home, feel flat and underwhelming. For every lavish set design by Alessia Carpoca (particularly those in Never Land), and for every carefully choreographed action scene (like the attempted capture of the mermaid), there are lulls filled with stagnant dialogue. These are failings that a child in the audience may overlook, but they provide too much idle time and fodder for critics—not to mention sarcastic college students.
Director Noah Tuleja is a newcomer to UM who specializes in stage combat, and this is his local directorial debut. His touch is obvious in Peter Pan’s action sequences and, not surprisingly, those are the moments when the production is at its best. But the story requires more than just eye candy, and it will be interesting to see what Tuleja can do with edgier or more mature content in the future.
Dickens and Van Heel (who also plays Mr. Darling) are solid in their lead roles, as is Laura Hughes as Wendy. But the scene stealing is done by the secondary characters, especially Danny Luwe as young Michael. Luwe is memorable in almost every one of his performances at UM, and the slight and comical actor is freakishly well cast as a teddy bear-clutching peewee; he carries an otherwise slow first act. A pair of Lost Boys, Tyler D. Neilsen as Tootles and Nathaniel Peterson as Slightly, along with Brad Poer as Hook’s sidekick Smee, also deserve mention for creative interpretations.
The disappointing elements of Peter Pan shouldn’t be saddled with responsibility for completely killing the show’s spirit, but they do clip its wings. Last year’s A Christmas Carol raised the bar at UM, and no matter how securely those cables are connected to the lead’s back, Peter Pan never manages to fly as high.
Peter Pan continues in the Montana Theatre Thur., Dec. 1, through Saturday, Dec. 3, and Tuesday, Dec. 6 through Saturday, Dec. 10. Shows begin at 7:30 PM with a 2 PM matinee Dec. 3. $15, $12 students and $5 for 10 and under. Call 243-4581.