Over the years, the story of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up because he didn’t want to learn solemn things, has become a perennial favorite. In the past year alone, two large scale productions were produced in the valley; the national tour with Cathy Rigby and a lively production from Valley Youth Theatre in downtown Phoenix.
Now, the high-flying musical of Edwardian manners has landed at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria in a sparkling new re-imaged version. It’s the same show, but ABT has approached the musical in a slightly different way. The magic is still there, but the overall production differs from what you might expect. It’s like going in expecting one thing and leaving with a completely different impression.
For one thing, ABT has bucked the trend of casting the lead in the style reflecting the show’s pantomime origins. Instead of going the traditional route of having Pan played by a female with short, pixie-styled hair, here we have the lithesome David Errigo, Jr. who brings to the stage just the right amount of impish, mischievous quality needed to make Pan come alive.
David’s playful approach and childlike manner as he leaps around and over the sets with boundless energy is genuinely fun to watch, particularly during the athletic flying sequences. He not only flies across the wide ABT stage from left to right, he leaps through opened windows and even walks down the side of walls, all while singing, In one particularly effective moment he actually flies out over the heads of the audience then circles back with a smooth landing on stage.
The Disney animated feature and the more recent 2003 film version also cast their Pan as a boy, but both had him talking with an American accent making him stand out among the cast of British sounding children. David employs an English one, though curiously, if you close your eyes and listen to him speak, with his pronounced tone and odd inflection, you’d swear he was literally channeling Cathy Rigby. The Olympic champion’s style of speech was always considered individual at best and has never truly sounded like a British boy, and here David imitates that same sound and rhythm down to the last syllable. On reflection, his own voice might have worked better.
Kiel Klaphake does double duty as both the prissy Mr. Darling and the dastardly Captain Hook, and it’s with Hook that Kiel excels. When playing the colorful and – let’s face it – psychotically murderous captain who wouldn’t think twice about making innocent children walk the plank, there’s only one way to play it; over the top. Each year at Christmas, Hollywood actor Henry Winkler flies to England and dons the costume of the pirate captain for British audiences where he’s become an annual favorite of intentional over-acting, and here Kiel gives Winkler a run for his money. There’s no way of over-playing Hook; the louder, the broader, the better, and that’s exactly what happens on ABT’s stage.
Where the musical differs from most productions is in the look. Scenic designer William Boles makes the sets of Neverland appear like the pages of a child’s oversized 3D pop up book; they seem to assemble before your eyes. Lit by a practically fluorescent lighting design by Will Kirkham that bathes the set in reds, greens and yellows depending on what character is doing the talking, the whole thing is eye-popping. It’s only in the opening moments, in the children’s bedroom, where things don’t work as well.
The angled walls giving the impression of space should be effective, yet despite the beds, the furniture and the huge window that will eventually open on its own to reveal Peter Pan, the stage remains empty. Plus, it doesn’t help that during those initial moments where we first meet Wendy (Sarah Powell) and her brothers the show plods and feels as though it’s lasting longer than it should. It’s not until later when Peter and the Darlings head to Neverland that the production really takes flight.
Like the scenic design, Christianne Myers’ costumes sparkle. Individual attention has been paid as each character displays something interesting and individual about their look. Curiously, the Indians are here dressed not in the traditional theatrical garb but in what appears to be grass skirts; they’re less like something you might see posing by a Wigwam on a reservation and more South Pacific.
Despite the first scene, the overall feel to ABT’s Peter Pan is one of enormous fun. If you have children who have never before seen the musical, then a magical few hours at the theatre are guaranteed. When Tinkerbell’s light is fading and Peter turns to the audience and asks for its help, the lights on all the dinner tables throughout the theatre momentarily brighten. Whether it was intentional or not, it’s the single moment in the show that truly reflects the play’s pantomime origins. When the division between audience and actors is suddenly blurred and the whole theatre becomes one, there’s nothing more magical, and for one glorious moment it happens in this production.
Thanks to photographer Mike Benedetto and Arizona Broadway Theatre for use of the images.
For more information regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for ABT’s official website.