Review: Peter Pan at Knight Theater
By Perry Tannenbaum
We don’t grow up with the various incarnations of James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as much as we used to. The aged Mary Martin musical is no longer resuscitated every year, the Disney animation has been relegated to a fairy-dust sprinkling for their theme park promotions, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw an ad for the peanut butter. And gosh, wasn’t there once a popcorn? Not a kernel remains in all of Googledom.
Yet the young flying prince of Neverland is still a powerful presence. Whether in touring musicals, glittery ballets, the original stage version, or that bizarre Broadway offshoot, Peter and the Starcatcher, the eternally young green sprite has visited our Metrolina stages at least 15 times during the new millennium. And tomorrow, Disney’s refresh, Peter and Wendy, starts to stream in your home if you’re subscribed.
Renaissance or evolution? The amended title begins to tell the direction of the Disney+ refresh. Meanwhile at Knight Theater, Charlotte Ballet unveiled their new Peter Pan, choreographed by Christopher Stuart. Building upon the previous version choreographed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in 2004 for Peter’s centenary, Stuart has retained Howard Jones’s set design and most of A. Christina Giannini’s costume designs.
The jolly pastiche of Rossini favorites that Bonnefoux leaned on for his score, with gossamer drizzles of Respighi, is replaced by a full-length ballet score by Stephen Warbeck, best known for his Billy Elliott and Shakespeare in Love film scores. In exchange for the one step backward in his scenario, restoring the traditional resurrect of Tinker Bell, Stuart took the evolution of Barrie’s story a couple of steps forward toward political correctness.
Was such evolution necessary? When Mary Martin first flew in from Neverland on the wings of Moose Charlap and Jule Styne’s music, she turned Peter into a female action hero, smoked the peace pipe with Tiger Lily and her tribe, and depended on the Darling women across the generations. Not that these were radical changes, either, since Nina Boucicault (daughter of the famed playwright Dion) originated the title role in 1904.
So with respect to women and Native Americans, termed Indians back in 1954, Peter Pan easily passed for progressive in my eyes. But in recent touring versions and in the Bonnefoux remake, you could see these sore points addressed. Styne’s “Ugg-a-Wugg,” with its Comden and Green lyric, remained in all the Broadway revivals through 1999, but has been discreetly reworked or dropped in recent tours. Bonnefoux turned the Indians into Incas in 2004, and when he brought his version back in 2013 with the new sets and costumes, Captain Hook’s pirate crew were equally divided between men and swashbuckling S&M women.
Stuart’s Tiger Lily, gracefully danced by Raven Barkley, is now a fighting flower. Thanks to new costumes by Kerri Martinsen, Tiger’s all-female militia are now billed as the Lillies of Neverland. While the Lost Boys haven’t changed their name (or costumes), half are now girls. The feminine swarm is augmented by a dozen female butterflies, but there are now a few more gigs for boys. Following in the wake of the funky Crocodile that Bonnefoux reconceived, a new gaggle of Little Crocodiles added microscopically to Pierce Gallagher’s menace at the premiere.
A quarter of this reptilian dozen are boys, so I’m guessing that the gender breakdown among the younglings parallels enrollment at the Charlotte Ballet school. The pre-recorded music, the hand-me-down costumes and sets, and especially the profusion of child labor – all of these economies make perfect sense. But did Stuart really think it would fly with a 2023 audience if Peter, Wendy, and the Darling bros didn’t fly?
Surely there were mommies and daddies out there in Knight Theater who had promised that Peter and Wendy would fly. Hell, there were adults out there counting on it. I couldn’t think of a single reason, not even a politically correct or environmentally responsible reason, why they didn’t fly. Flying by Foy is on strike, they missed their flight, or their train was derailed. Try those.
If nothing else, the gaps and hybrid aspects of the new Peter emphatically indicate that it is a production in flux, ready for new twists, new replacement parts, upgrades, and embellishments in years to come. To Stuart’s credit, he tinkers brilliantly with Tinker Bell, impishly danced by Isabella Franco at the premiere. The new opening scene, at the newly-discovered Darling Orphanage, shows her stealing a newborn from its cradle and whisking it off to Neverland.
In the ensuing scene, when the curtain goes up, Tink is more jealous of Wendy than usual, a resentment and hostility that will carry over to Neverland – where Peter, the little babe she has raised, must eventually put her in time-out! A delicious moment. Michael Darling and John Darling, danced by Tyler Diggs and Lorenzo Dunton, also get more development than I usually note before Peter’s arrival. Their mom and dad, Sarah Lapointe and James Kopecky, were admirably contoured as well. Kopecky showed a little achiness after dancing with his sons, yet Lapointe regally summoned him for another spin or two on the floor.
Both Sarah Hayes Harkins and Maurice Mouzon Jr. were youth and joy from the moment they met, but their start was a bit awkward in the Darlings’ bedroom compared to their outdoor adventures in Neverland. Aside from the no-fly-zone reveal we had to overcome, Stuart needs to clean up the sequence and the lighting of Peter’s lost and found shadow. He seems to have his shadow quite dramatically soon after he comes in, but then he inexplicably loses it.
There are usually two scenarios to choose from. The musical has Peter returning in search of a shadow left behind an indeterminate time ago. In other tellings, he might fly away from Wendy in a huff only to realize that his pesky shadow has stuck on the supersized window sill when he left. Stuart and lighting designer Jennifer Propst have to be on the same page with these niggling details.
Up in sunny Neverland, it all goes so beautifully. As always, Franco as Tink has taken the shortcut, arrives before all the others, and instigates the shooting down of our airborne Wendy by one of the Lost Boys. With a slingshot, not a bow and arrow.
For a flower, Barkley does seem to have a lot of fight in her, so her kidnapping by Ben Ingel as Captain Hook remains a satisfying battle. In his rescue of Tiger Lilly, Peter is wounded by Hook, proving that the pirate is a worthy foe. But don’t expect Ingel to be as fearsome as Jude Law will be on Disney+. He retains some of the comical blood that Bonnefoux infused into previous Hooks, lurking and skulking across the stage when he isn’t prancing merrily or fleeing in terror from the cheerfully chomping Croc.
There’s plenty of lovely, charming, and colorful mayhem as the nearly poisoned Peter rescues Wendy, the Darling bros, and the Lost Boys. Joy is abundant in the homecoming, and Stuart tacks on the cherishable postscript when Peter returns a generation later for Wendy. Four little girls will get to play the touching part of Jane during the 12-show run, one more than any other role.
Now aside from a phone call to Foy, Stuart and company might consider returning to that Darling Orphanage they’ve left dangling for future editions. In Barrie’s novelization, one of the Lost Boys, adopted by the Darlings, becomes a titled lord and another becomes a judge. The least Stuart and CharBallet could do is bring them home.