'Peter Pan,' Sure to Hook The Kids

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 27, 2008

You can have your "Peter Pan" served as light as Disney or as dark as death, but if you've ordered up the 1954 musical version, you want the show to fly.

So it does at the Olney Theatre Center, at least whenever director Eve Muson remembers she has a musical comedy on her hands. When Captain Hook and his pirates strike a pose and launch into a contemplative tango, what's not to like? And kids -- the clear target audience here -- should get a kick out of watching Wendy, John and Michael swoop above the stage as the eternal boy from Neverland teaches them how to defy gravity.

At its best, the show is bright and airy, not only in Tijana Bjelajac's eccentric yet appealing design but also in the frisky mood that pervades the Darling household. A good deal of the early wonderment comes from Mitchell Hébert, whose charmingly grumpy turn as Mr. Darling forecasts the amiably mischievous Hook he delivers in the show's long middle act.

If Hébert's performance is a bit of a scene stealer, that's okay; with Hook's dandified vanity and appetite for menace, a little extra is the least an actor can do. But the show loses its way without this villain, partly because Muson isn't satisfied to be entertained by Peter Pan. She wants to think about him a little bit.

So this Pan, earnestly played by Daniel Townsend, is on the grown-up side, with a voice that's occasionally deep and with biceps that suggest he's been to the gym. His odd costume -- white capris and a carefully ripped white shirt -- evokes '80s music videos, and even that would be fine if Muson kept Peter's scenes chugging along. She doesn't, especially early, so it's up to Hook and the Indians to rescue the show.

Luckily, their scenes are impossible to ponder for long. This musical hails from the days of carefree song and dance, when whizzes such as Jerome Robbins -- the original director-choreographer -- could create full-blown production numbers around even graceless material like "Indian Dance" and "Ugg-a-Wugg." Here, choreographer Boo Killebrew leads the tribe in a fierce cheerleading frug (Bjelajac's design has a whiff of 1960s flower power in Neverland) while putting a lot of pounce in her nearly nonverbal role as Tiger Lily.

Hook's pirates are similarly energetic, and never better than when they line up for terse, precise musical interludes. The committee-written score -- originally by Mark Charlap and Carolyn Leigh but with extra songs by Jule Stein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green -- isn't always aces, but highlights include a finally animated Peter leading the Lost Boys in the happily defiant "I Won't Grow Up."

It's an up-and-down evening, with the unevenness extending to the tinny synthesized sound from the orchestra pit. Again, kids won't mind. It's their chaperones who might notice that while the Olney has produced some accomplished musicals recently, sometimes it's clear that they're still growing up.

Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie, music by Mark Charlap with additional music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh with additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Directed by Eve Muson. Musical director, Christopher Youstra; lighting design, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Pei Lee; sound design, Jarett C. Pisani. With Florrie Bagel, Aviad Bernstein, Ethan T. Bowen, Jace Casey, Steven Cupo, Elizabeth Fette, David Frankenburger Jr., Patricia Hurley, Jennifer Irons, Brenda Lock, Sandra L. Murphy, Joe Peck, Matthew Schleigh, Kyle Schliefer, Kevin Sockwell, Dan Stowell, Dan Van Why, Kara-Tameika Watkins and Peggy Yates. Through Jan. 4 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit http://www.olneytheatre.org.

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