We all grow older, but until we die we'll be shadowed by the boy who never grows up, Peter Pan. The rotten little imp is everywhere. Always has been, always will be. As inescapable as Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse.
Instead of new ideas, big-time musical theater keeps reaching back to the tried and true. And one of the tried-est and tritest is Peter Pan, Scottish writer J.M. Barrie's century-old story about a prepubescent flying elf, a place called Neverland and the children who visit there. (Don't think about the Michael Jackson Neverland. Just don't.)
Among the panoply of current incarnations of Barrie's character is the Tony award-winning take called Peter and the Starcatcher, now on tour and due to arrive at the Winspear September 17. There's a huge new musical produced by Harvey Weinstein and based on the film Finding Neverland that opens in the U.K. this fall, with West End and Broadway runs in sight.
continues through August 18 at Dallas Theater Center, Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Call 214-880-0202.
And now there's Fly, getting its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center at the Wyly Theatre. It, too, is hoping for a nonstop flight to Broadway, and it has the talent behind it to get there: book by Rajiv Joseph (his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Gruesome Playground Injuries were done recently in Dallas theaters); music by Bill Sherman (Sesame Street's musical director); lyrics by Rajiv Joseph and Kirsten Childs; and choreography by In the Heights Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler, who made the moppets dance in the current Broadway revival of Annie. The director of Fly is Jeffrey Seller, a three-time Tony-winning producer whose hits include Rent and Avenue Q.
So with all this creative sparkle behind Fly, plus a large cast drawn largely from the Broadway musical talent pool, why does the show feel like somebody skimped on magical fairy dust? It's loud and long and weighed down by murky themes. The choreography is that herky-jerky hip-hop stuff, done off, between and around the beat and in spasmodic bursts. Instead of hummable melodies, the composer has come up with numbers built on pounding tribal drumbeats. Only one song furthers the plot and that's Captain Hook's sad-funny lament for his lost left hand (Bradley Dean, wearing Wolverine whiskers as Hook, is the best, funniest thing in the show).
The story's been flipped for Fly, too. Now young Wendy Darling is front and center, with an early first-act solo protesting being grounded for mixing chemicals and blowing things up. (She's played by 12-year-old Cleveland native Isabela Moner, who will remind you of the young Lea Michele from Spring Awakening.) Fly takes Wendy from childhood to motherhood, with a side trip to Neverland and a near-death in the Black Swamp that serves as a slough of despond for characters who can't face adulthood.
"Grow up, get old and die miserable" is the depresso mucho message of this musical. Wendy's little brother Michael is already dead at the start, which has her parents (never seen) and other brother John (Austin Karkowsky) immobilized by grief. Into Wendy's window comes Peter Pan — not flying at first, but hoisted awkwardly through curtains by a couple of dancing "trees." He invites the girl to fly away with him, explaining that lift-off is possible only if one forgets everything about one's life. Sad little John is more than willing, singing, "Forget my mom/forget my dad/forget the things that make me sad."
Off they go, pulled into the air above the Wyly stage by very visible means provided by the legendary Flying by Foy effects team. Peter (young Grant Venable, hair swooped into a mohawk) and the kids set down in scenic designer Anna Louizos' idea of Neverland, a jungle of bare, thin bamboo spikes, like pick-up sticks that landed pointy ends up. They meet the Lost Boys, who've all forgotten their pasts, including Slightly (Benjamin Errig), whom John mistakes for his lost sibling Michael. (Among all the Lost Boys, you'll watch the kid with spiky hair. That's Fort Worth's Jace Duncan, the best dancer up there.)
Hook and his tattered band of pirates, weary men wearing remnants of whatever they had on when Hook Shanghai'd them, rise out of the floor on their rust-bucket ship, a marvelous bit of scenic gymnastics. Hook wants Peter Pan dead, revenge for chopping off his hand. But here's one of many instances where Joseph's script and the direction screw Fly up: When Hook gets his remaining mitt on Peter, they sword fight and then, for no good reason, the pirates help the kid snap back into his flying harness and he escapes. Whoops.
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Have I forgotten Tinkerbell? Played by Morgan Weed, she's a bitter, steampunk-attired shrew, dropping in like a spider — no, wait, she's a firefly, as the dialogue reminds us 700 times — to bitch at Peter Pan. She almost gets him killed. "Miserable little fairy!" screams Wendy. Oh, snap.
"You grow up and get scared and then you try to control everyone," says the Prince of Neverland when Wendy and John are ready to leave his underground lair in Fly, a Lord of the Flies twist on the J.M. Barrie fairy tale.
No, you don't. Childhood is where the scary stuff is. Growing up is good. Get older and you learn how to fly without having to forget.
Consider Peter panned.