Leonard Bernstein’s Peter Pan is a delightful but uneven collage of brightly colored music, expressive dance, and experimental performance in Christopher Alden’s imaginative revival. This long-lost Broadway score and J.M. Barrie’s familiar story get a stripped-down treatment here. But the original themes—a quest for love, perpetual youth, and freedom—remain. Alternating between playful, strange, sassy, and violent, the production lives in a liminal space where gender, age, and intention blur. When it all clicks it’s delicious and dark, but sometimes it’s just confusing.
In a fur coat and high-waisted trousers, a platinum blond, tall, willowy David Bowie-esque Peter Pan (Peter Smith) meets the tender, adventurous, and sensually curious Wendy (Erin Markey). She sews back on his lost shadow and he invites her to come traveling with him. Off they fly with a pissed-off fairy, Tinker Bell (Jack Ferver), to Neverland. They rendezvous with Peter’s disillusioned pack of lost boys (Catherine Bloom, Milo Cramer, Jewel Evans, Alec Glass, Charles Mai). Peter’s nemesis, a blood-soaked Captain Hook (William Michals) threatens Pan’s friends including Tiger Lily (Rona Figueroa) and Wendy.
Neverland is a neon-green playland centered around a massive carnival ride (bold and exciting design by Marsha Ginsberg)—the device that give Wendy and Peter flight. It is a world made up of familiar contemporary objects—a grocery cart, a disco ball, a ticking wall clock, and silver balloons. But make-believe magic clings to these items. Tinker Bell wears the spinning disco ball upon her head and casts glittering light over certain moments. A mermaid swims into the scene via the grocery cart. We must call upon our imaginations to see what the children see.
The production feels conjured by Peter and Wendy themselves and when make-believe time is over (or the game has stopped being fun) it falls apart and we return to Wendy’s real world. It is poignantly tragic that the magic ends for all.
However, Bernstein’s music (and this traditional quintet arrangement) often sits uneasily with the experimentation. Bernstein is frothy and light here while the productions leans toward the more serious and abstract. While also, some scenes slip into illegibility. Yet, the world created and complex performances make this a worthwhile treat.
When Tinker Bell thinks she has tricked the Lost Boys into killing Wendy she performs a victory dance that is saucy, vampy, and a swirling, sexy soft-shoe. Ferver (who is also the choreographer) steals the show whenever Tink is the focus. There’s not a drop of sweetness in this cigarette smoking, bird-flipping, silver lamé-bedecked fairy. I would pay good money for an all-Tinker Bell sequel. Hook is inexplicably (and quite literally) blood-thirsty but it’s an enjoyable grotesque from Michals whose beautiful baritone makes the song “Captain Hook’s Soliloquy” a sonorous lament.
Thankfully they’ve avoided any caricaturing and Native American signifiers in portraying Tiger Lily (though there is some stereotypical pum-pum-pum drum thumping in the score around her). She is actually dressed like Rambo—with a bandolier of bullets, a camouflage leotard, and her face painted to match the camo. But in the truncation of the story, we don’t really know her connection to Peter.
Smith and Markey have a fiery stage chemistry. Both characters bear an intensity in their beliefs, feelings, and fears. When Wendy pursues Peter, she clings to him, leaps into his arms, nuzzles him. He tries to hide in a bouquet of silver balloons to escape her unwelcome touch. Like some of Markey’s performances in other works, their breathy sensibility reads like a passionate young pre-teen who is feeling their way through every emotion in the world. Their Wendy is a fervent mix of hormones, desire, and fantasy. While Smith is wounded, vulnerable, and covering these qualities with their wild abandon. But when Peter says “To die would be an awfully big adventure,” it comes across as contemplative rather than the statement of a crowing, invincible child. This Peter has thought about death before and maybe even dwelled upon it. A darkness lives inside Peter and Smith lets that spill out through their fretful eyes.
Through costuming (by Terese Wadden) and performances, gender and bodily expression further illustrate the characters. I believe with intention, Tinker Bell’s clingy silver suit highlights Ferver’s buttocks. One of my companions complained of this distraction but with his expressive body Ferver is punctuating the otherwise speechless Tinker Bell’s walk, personality, and being. Smith is in a skintight white T-shirt so sheer you can see their nipples through it. With the Bowie costuming and their androgynous features, Smith’s Peter celebrates gender fluidity. They may be referred to as the “Lost Boys” but in this production they are not following such a binary and they are certainly not all boys. Wendy, who wears a baggy t-shirt and sparkly skirt while with her parents, eventually strips down to a clingy body suit and leotard for some of her time in Neverland. She loosens her braided hair and let’s it fly freely. This shedding feels like a release for Wendy which ends when she decides to return home and dejectedly puts back on her regular clothes again.
Peter Pan has always exclaimed he does not want to grow up. But with non-binary performer, Smith, as Peter, I began to think about the well-founded fear of puberty for trans and nonbinary children with unwelcome hormones and potentially a body that will not match their gender identity. While the production makes no overt references to this, casting two non-binary performers for Peter and Wendy one feels like the piece wants us to consider what growing up might mean to these children and what is terrifying about this particular impending unknown.