Rumor has it that the debtor prisons of Merrie Olde England are making a comeback. But let us dwell on the positive. Obama won and Beck Center has finally dumped its annual Christmas offering, Beauty and the Beast, for a true object of delight: the 1954 musicalization of James M. Barrie's Peter Pan.
The timing couldn't be more perfect. Recently, when a twentysomething server at Caribou Coffee confessed ignorance of all things Pan-ish, I couldn't help checking my gingerbread latte for ground glass. The reason for the caution is that I've never fully trusted people who don't know the real Peter Pan - not the Disney version or the peanut butter, but the authentic enchantment conceived in the early 1900s for the edification of five young brothers dear to Barrie. I'm convinced, for instance, that neither Richard Nixon nor Dick Cheney, as cherubic boys, ever enjoyed the benefit of sufficient Pan training. For what the wise Scottish author captured for all time was the cruel, fleeting glory of childhood and the necessary melancholy burden of adulthood.
Coincidentally, just as with Shaw and Pygmalion (posthumously enshrined as My Fair Lady), Barrie refused all offers to musicalize his special child in his lifetime. Ironically, however, both playwrights had their immortality certified with eventual musical adaptations. In particular, Barrie's play without the 1954 score seems like a cake stripped of frosting.
Beck Center is to be complimented for programming this gem, but its present realization is one of the most schizophrenic this viewer has ever witnessed. It's balanced on the perilous precipice between engaging failure and deeply flawed success. In the original production, every skillful move was planned by director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, who did everything but paint the scenery. At Beck, though, we have a tussle between a director (Fred Sternfeld) interested in rendering the piece as a cartoon and a choreographer (Mart’n Céspedes) whose firm fidelity is to the Barrie original.
Typical Sternfeld touches are a Captain Hook (Michael Mauldin) allowed to ratchet up the villain's camp with strange gutteral noises, a wildly anachronistic reference to the Jonas Brothers and desperate mugging to compensate for a lack of shapely guidance. Worse, Sternfeld permits fight choreographer John C. Davis to stink up the third act with an unimaginative free-for-all that seems to last longer than Wagner's Ring Cycle.
In happy contrast, we have John Paul Soto's Peter, whose vocal delicacy, Nijinsky-like flying (as opposed to aerial contortions that resemble rotating window displays on giant fish hooks) and Our Gang innocence make one forget the role was ever the exclusive property of actresses. In an archetypal Céspedes moment, Peter imparts the idea of Neverland to Wendy (the beautiful Kelly Smith) by gently caressing her temple. In addition, the sterling choreographer has staged a quintet or more of witty and fanciful dance numbers, which leads one to speculate that this visit to Neverland might have been a far more evocative occasion with Se–or Céspedes as our sole guide.
Peter Pan Through January 4 Beck Center 17801 Detroit Rd., Lakewood 216.521.2540