Saturday, December 16, 2023

"Peter Pan" at the Ordway Center

A brand new production of the classic musical Peter Pan is touring across the country, and it flies into St. Paul first! This charming musical about childhood, telling stories, family, and the necessary pain of growing up has gotten new life with an updated book by Indigenous playwright Larissa FastHorse, who also co-wrote the world premiere new comedy For the People at the Guthrie earlier this fall. Gone are the uncomfortable stereotypes and gender biases, but what's still there are the beloved songs, fantastic acrobatic dancing, and a prevailing sense of magic. The Ordway Center is decked out for the holidays to be the first host for this new touring production, for a night of all-around magic, wonder, and joy. Peter Pan plays once (or twice) every day (except Mondays) through New Year's Eve - click here for info and tickets.

The story begins, as always, in the nursery of teen Wendy and her brothers John and Michael, but we're squarely in the modern day. Their always too busy father works at home and is stressed out about his job and paying the bills, the babysitter hired for parents' night out is distracted by her phone, and Wendy dreams of growing up to become a surgeon who also gets to dress up and attend fancy balls. Enter Peter Pan, flying through the window looking for his lost shadow. When Wendy, hungry for adventure, learns that Peter lives in a magical land called Neverland full of pirates and tribes, she asks if she and her brothers can go with him, so they all fly away. Peter thinks the other Lost Boys need a mother, and Wendy is happy to use her surgeon skills to take care of them. They live happily together for a time, fighting off the evil Captain Hook and becoming friends with Tiger Lily and her band. But Wendy soon realizes that you can't live in a fantasy all the times, and decides to go home and continue growing up in the real world. Peter, however, is determined to remain a child forever, even if it means saying goodbye.

Peter (Nolan Almeida) and Wendy (Hawa Kamara)
(photo by Matthew Murphy)
Broadway director Lonny Price takes the helm here and along with choreographer Lorin Latarro and flying sequence choreographer Paul Rubin has created a dynamic and fast-moving production filled with magic. The young and talented cast fulfill their vision with great energy. I think they've discovered a star in 17-year-old Nolan Almeida, who has oodles of charisma as Peter Pan. He has a great voice, natural stage presence, and flies around the stage with ease. Our Wendy, Hawa Kamara, is a recent college graduate but very convincing as the teenager who's eager to grow up, but still loves play. Youngsters Micah Turner Lee and Reed Epley as John and Michael (alternating in the roles with William Foon and Jayden Guarneri) are adorable, and so impressive holding their own amongst professional actors. Another highlight is singer/songwriter Raye Zaragoza, so good as Tiger Lily I wish she got to sing more. And of course, the other star of the show is Captain Hook, and Cody Garcia is gleefully evil and so much fun to watch, along with sidekick Kurt Perry as Smee.

Captain Hook (Cody Garcia) and his pirate band
(photo by Matthew Murphy)
The three main sets are the nursery, Neverland, and Captain Hook's ship, each one detailed and full of magic. Video projections are used in the flying sequences (so real I had to close my eyes to avoid getting nauseous) and to add a lush green background to the Neverland set (draped with greenery), creating a sense of movement in the chase scenes. The flying is accomplished the old-fashioned way - harnesses and wires, but I never saw those wires being attached or detached, and the effect is one of effortless magic, as Peter and the kids glide and spin through the air. Tinkerbell is a spark of light that somehow travels all over the stage too, her voice represented by sounds from the pit orchestra (including her angry voice as maybe a bassoon or bass clarinet). The Neverland residents are dressed in colorful and eclectic costumes, Peter in a variation of the iconic green tunic and tights. The choreography is fast and fun to watch, especially the acrobatic fight scenes. (Scenic design by Anna Louizos, costume design by Sarafina Bush, projection design by David Bengali.)

J.M. Barrie's original play premiered over a century ago, the musical version nearly 70 years ago. This revival is a great example of how you make a few small tweaks that bring the story into the present and remove the potentially offensive bits, yet still stay true to the heart of the story. There are a few new songs and lyrics, the female characters have more agency, and Tiger Lily's "tribe" is a group of people representing extinct cultures from around the world. But it's still the Peter Pan we love, about a boy who gets to live in the magic and wonder of childhood forever, one that we grown-ups get to visit for a few hours.