Forget starry Neverland: if you’ve ever wondered what the Lost Boys’ abode might look like lined with mermaids, shopping carts, and unpeeled potatoes, look no further than Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, where Christopher Alden’s new production of Peter Pan debuted last month for a three-week run ending July 22.
In addition to pushing J.M. Barrie’s familiar tale of puberty-scorn to its puckish limits (and, with its landscape of ski masks, disco balls, and vocoders, at times beyond recognition), the Bard reboot defies convention by reviving an obscure, rarely-performed version of the classic 1904 play.
This musical iteration, featuring neither Mary Martin nor the viridescent cartoon hero in tights, just happens to have been scored by a young Leonard Bernstein, whose centenary is also being observed this year.
When his Peter Pan hit Broadway in 1950, Bernstein was still a relatively second-tier composer—he’d completed On the Town but not yet introduced the world to West Side Story or Candide—and had furnished the play with only some incidental music and a few songs. (Abroad for much of rehearsals, he was, even by his own admission, a distant contributor at best.) But what Bernstein did submit offers fascinating early evidence of his genius for compound meter and pastiche, and this fauvist Peter Panis about as complex and compound as it gets.
Here is a staging for the queer, non-normative, countercultural among us: by Alden’s design (and Bernstein’s suggestion), Barrie’s youthful characters are no longer the blithe, impish naifs of Lake Buena Vista. These, rather, are full-blooded humans, ones who must somehow reconcile friendship and lust, while balancing the sad, familiar yearning for familial comfort with a dark and racy appetite for anarchy.
When we first meet Wendy Darling (played by fascinating cult cabaret artist Erin Markey), she is bleary-eyed and detached, stunned stiff by the boring prattle of her Darling parents. (This production wisely eliminates her siblings, rendering Wendy an only child.)
Dazzled by her handiwork with his purloined shadow—and to the chagrin of his trusty companion Tinker Bell (dancer/choreographer Jack Ferver)—Peter (Peter Smith) claims Wendy as his mother, and whisks her off to Neverland to care for him and his Lost Boy comrades.
As might be expected, Wendy’s undoing sadly involves her falling for her captor—and falling hard, as their Neverland “house-play” of mummy and daddy winds up hastening the poor sap’s sexual awakening. Bernstein doesn’t shy away from this oft-sanitized aspect of the parable, supplying Wendy with a short, girlish seduction aria—“Without your touch I’ll perish,” she sighs—though it falls on deaf ears (“No school, office, or manhood for him!”)
The awful spurning leads to the eventual abduction of Wendy by Peter’s nemesis, Captain Hook of the Jolly Roger (ringing operatic baritone William Michals, this production’s greatest vocal asset), whose Freudian resemblance to Mr. Darling, Wendy’s father, is of course also uncanny.
If this all weren’t sufficiently grim and oddball, Alden takes pains to foreground the carnivalesque—literally: Marsha Ginsberg’s hallucinogenic set design features a real live amusement park ride replete with flying sharks—while plying his ensemble with enough trick-effects to fly us, straight on till morning, to the realm of the truly weird.
Some of these artifices are more successful than others. I loved, for instance, the pirates’ Lynchian vocoder-talk and the disco ball Tinker Bell wore on his head. Actually, Ferver’s Tinker Bell was a wicked thrill to watch in general, a vision in silver lamé. As choreographer for the show, he has the performers moving about the scenery with the same fun energy that many of us Ferver junkies.
It’s a pleasure to report that onetime Broadway megastar Rona Figueroa, who lends her talents here not only to the role of Mrs. Darling, but also Tiger Lily and the menacing Croc, remains a total phenom onstage, one capable of transmitting great nuance. It is she who, in one of the show’s quieter moments, must bring Wendy back to earth with her matriarchal duty call: Figueroa captures this tricky self-contradiction—of wanting to help a daughter move on, but also secure her allegiance—in only a few facial expressions.
Less compelling, strangely, was the Bard production’s aesthetic handling of its two central figures. Smith’s Peter, lanky and stumbling from scene to scene in a Beatnik uniform of shag jacket, Chelsea boots, and tousled mop of platinum hair, evoked less boyish free spirit than brooding, aloof Andy Warhol: this clouded the character’s chaste relational dynamic with Wendy and tinged their friendship with a creepy Svengali/Factory-It-Girl vibe that to me felt like a misfire.
Even odder was Markey’s portrayal of Wendy as a blasé Wednesday Addams type, delivering an “I’ll sew it on for you” so darkly indifferent, the line about helping Peter with his shadow set off tremors of nervous laughter.
Last July I had the unique privilege of watching Markey put their (the actor is non-binary) distinctive touch on the part of “Squeaky” Fromme in Encores! Off-Center production of Assassins; I’ll never forget their flat, eldritch portrayal of the insane murderess, which took Sondheim’s one-gag character to sublime new comedic heights. Here, though, it seems they’re simply repeating the stunt, creating the odd effect of a Wendy who’s non compos mentis. It’s as if Anna Leonowens found herself willingly adopted by the Manson Family.
Importantly, none of this detracts from a boisterous production and fundamentally imaginative score by Bernstein—here re-orchestrated for a six-piece orchestra under the baton of Michael A. Ferrara—which delivers fairy dust by the bagful.
Some newcomers to the musical may already be familiar with Wendy’s Arlen-esque song “Who Am I?” (plucked from obscurity by Nina Simone); they’re in for the giddy realization that this show is in fact full of gems, from the syncopations of “Lagoon Fight” to the chantey takeoff, “Pirate Song.”
Yet there’s enough going for this sultry, weirdo production in Annandale-on-Hudson that simply reviewing the song list somehow doesn’t seem adequate. Let’s just say that its mature edginess makes growing up appear all the more worthwhile.
Photos: Maria Baranova