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It has been well over 100 years since Captain Hook first asked James M. Barrie's signature protagonist, "Who and what art thou?" Hook has certainly evolved since then, shedding his antiquated diction, but so has "The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up," as the current Children's Theatre of Charlotte production of Peter Pan jubilantly reminds us. Peter no longer answers as Barrie prescribed, "I'm youth, I'm joy! I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg!" Ever since Jerome Robbins, Betty Comden, Adolf Green, and Jule Styne got hold of him for their musical adaptation, Peter says, "I am youth. I am joy. I am freedom!" Without any official conquest or treaty, Neverland became an American territory.
Yet it must be said that, directing the show at McColl Theatre in the ImaginOn complex, Jenny Male has turned back the clock in a couple of key respects. Like the Darling family of Londoners – Wendy, John, Michael, and their parents – Renee Welsh-Noel as Peter spoke with an unmistakable British accent. Better yet, she radiated more pure bird-broken-out-of-the-egg joy than anyone I've seen since Mary Martin introduced this musical ages ago. The voice is also very fine, with richer low notes than I've heard before from a lady Peter and only a negligible loss of power at the top. Welsh-Noel also boasts more youthful energy than Cathy Rigby, the last marquee name to tour Charlotte in the title role, with a dancer's athleticism rather than a gymnast's.
Fresh new joy also radiates from Caleb Ryan Sigmon, who sashays across Neverland and his pirate ship in a silken, spangled, flaming-red greatcoat designed by Ryan Moller that skirts the borders of effeminacy without quite crossing over. Male and choreographer Mavis Scully supply Sigmon with abundant shtick to feast on, and his antics kept the kiddies in a hysterical uproar of laughter. I'm not sure I've ever heard more excited glee during an intermission, as if parents had discovered buried treasure in the comedy, the music, and the flying action. Sigmon excelled most notably in "Hook's Waltz," slightly eclipsing the éclat he and his crew had created in his previous "Tango" and "Tarantella." After he concluded the "Waltz" once, I hoped Sigmon would get a second ending to croon. Hamming up "Mrs. Hook's little baby boy," he did.
Political correctness, however, has taken away Tiger Lily's former Native American zest, short-changing Desirae Powell's chances to shine. "Indians!" and "The Pow-Wow Polka" have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, along with the "Ugg-a-Wugg" title and much of the Styne melody from what is now "True Brothers to the End." A percussion orgy, maybe African- or Caribbean-inspired, and a splash of Scully choreography replaced the tom-tom tattoo. Hard to say what the main sore point was here, referring to Native Americans or the treaties we made with them. Either way, despite Moller's evocative costuming, it was difficult for Powell to sustain any traction in her severely pruned role. I'm not sure it was even kosher for her to acknowledge that she was leading a tribe. Gender may also be off limits in our hypersensitive new world: Hook's "Mysterious Lady" has disappeared, and the first greeting from Wendy to Peter is no longer "Boy."
The Darling children, products of the Children's Theatre of Charlotte School of Theatre Training, were absolutely wonderful, perfect examples of Male's meticulous directing. Mary Kathryn Brown artlessly delivered the full range of Wendy – eldest sibling, adventurous girl, fantasy mother, and wife – with all the joy and frustration of dealing with Peter. Wearing the traditional top hat, Eli Fischer was suitably priggish as John, and Andrew Ahdieh dispatched some endearing business with a teddy bear as Michael. Of course, the boys wanted to go to Neverland – Wendy hardly needed to invite them – but of course they soon got homesick after a few adventures and asked to schlep back across the galaxy. Allison Snow-Rhinehardt presided over the sleepy opening action with a sweet Julie Andrews accent as Mrs. Darling, starting off the canonic "Tender Shepherd" lullaby with a warmth that justified her children's affections. Snow-Rhinehardt shed her formal during her brood's absence, transforming into one of the pirate crew, but Jeremy Shane Kinser as Mr. Darling moonlights more prominently, becoming Starkey, one of Hook's chief henchmen.
Male's inventive overlays are certainly open to question. She frames the action with a little girl, Wendy's future daughter, off to the side of the stage, reading the story and ultimately stepping into it for the final scene. In the meanwhile, lights come up on her occasionally as she gets swept up in the action – it seems that she's supplanting the role of an interpreter for the hearing impaired. And if you think the woman listed in the cast as Tinker Bell is a celesta virtuoso, guess again. After twinkling on walls, furniture, and foliage all through the story, she suddenly flies into Peter's hideout in the corporeal form of Haley Vogel, drinking Hook's poison to save dear Peter and dying a fairy's death. The tableau, Tink cradled in Peter's arms before we're entreated to resurrect her with our clapping, is like a Pietà. Kids at the Saturday matinee were as amazed as I was – and responsive. And how about Lisa Schacher as Smee? She was so lovably servile towards Hook that I didn't begrudge her tagging along behind the Lost Boys at the end.
Sets by Robin Best weren't the most eye-popping that I've seen at the McColl, a little humdrum in the framing London scenes but bursting with life in Neverland with a preternaturally large dragonfly painted onto the skein along with clusters of grapes larger than Hook himself. The deck of Hook's ship was, in the same vein, a monstrously enlarged replica of the boat we first saw on John's bed, made from a folded-up newspaper. Dreamy and odd. The idea of making Nanna, the Darlings' dog, into a big floppy puppet was brilliant, but I'm sorry to report that Male and her design team bungled the Croc rather badly, giving us only a tail dangling over the side of that newspaper boat as the action crested. Evidently, nobody at ImaginOn has checked out the wondrous Charlotte Ballet production of Peter Pan and discovered just how hilarious a costumed Croc can be.
But it would be foolish to assert that Children's Theatre didn't know what they were doing in this spectacular season opener. Clocking in at 140 minutes, Peter Pan surely ranks among the longest shows ever staged at the McColl Theatre, its opening act longer than most of the shows the company produces. Maybe the cagiest – and subtly effective – thing Male does is in the careful placement of her intermission. Flouting the norm, she doesn't bring down the curtain on a rousing climax. Instead, we adjourn at the moment when Peter and Tiger Lily shake hands after saving each other from the pirates. When the lights came up, everybody in the audience – children of all ages – knew that there was more to come and that it would be good. The flying by Peter, Wendy, her siblings, and the surprising Tink is delightful throughout, but the curtain call sends Peter out over the audience, an artful cherry on top.
Peter Pan& continues through Sunday, November 3. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.