Christmas season is when cash cows appear in the local theatrical pasture, as companies bring out the old reliables (A Christmas Story, A Christmas Carol, The Santaland Diaries) that haul in bountiful houses and much-needed moolah. So it's unsurprising that the Beck Center is again treating us to Peter Pan, its latest annual holiday extravaganza.
For children in the audience, this adaptation of the James M. Barrie classic is a virtual can't-miss. When you have dancing and singing pirates, Indians, a scruffy band of homeless boys and youngsters flying all over the place, it's hard not to trigger delight and wonder in the wide-eyed patrons.
This production still has all the trappings perfectly in place, from the elegant Darling household to the mist-shrouded Neverland where Peter takes the airborne Darling kids. But the challenge in doing a show every year is matching the spontaneity and intensity of a previous effort, especially when there are cast and director changes. And that's where this edition pales a bit in comparison.
Under the direction of Scott Spence (last year it was Fred Sternfeld), this iteration feels slow-paced and tired. Even though its running time is shorter, scenes often drag and don't have the snap they require. In Act One, the dialogue in the Darling residence seems a beat slow, which takes the edge off the humor. And when Peter sprinkles the three Darling children with fairy dust and they lift into the air, the sense of exhilaration and astonishment is oddly muted. This inability to inject freshness into each scene haunts this production and is most evident in the labored Act Three fight scene.
John Paul Soto is back as Peter. His singing has improved, and he brings a nice macho twist to a role often filled by a woman. But he needs to learn that stage presence is not achieved by striking athletic poses, but by fashioning a character that has more than surface appeal.
The other major casting change is George Roth in the roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook (they were handled by a superb Michael Mauldin in 2008). Roth is an accomplished performer, but he feels slightly out of his element here. These parts demand an actor who is an unabashed one-man-band of cartoony foppishness, so that the audience can luxuriate in the extraneous fun. Roth paints an adequate background canvas for these characters, but he never seems comfortable filling in the telling details and taking them over the edge where they belong. So when dastardly Hook eventually walks the plank, it's rather ho-hum.
Still, the young cast does what is asked of them. The choreography by Martin Céspedes turns what could be banal dance sequences into very watchable interludes, with Alexis Generette Floyd tearing it up again as Tiger Lily. But it just goes to show that no matter how well known a show is, tight timing and risk-taking actors can make the difference between a glorious grade-A fantasy and a C+ dream.