J.M. Barrie had a sure moment of brilliance when he conceived Peter Pan, the boy who not only refused to grow up but who defied the Earth itself. Through numerous interpretations on screen and stage -- including a touring company that opened a two-week run at the Warner last night -- the character refuses to die, no matter how much saccharin is piled on top of it.
The current company is a third generation of the recent Broadway revival of the 1954 musical "Peter Pan." Karyn Cole, who was Sandy Duncan's understudy on Broadway, is Peter. Cole has the voice and the moves, flies well and looks all right in short hair, but she's like a pitcher who puts so much spin on the ball that it goes out of control. She has a frenetic animation that the rest of production shares at its least successful moments.
At its high points -- notably the music and the end of the first act, when Wendy, John and Michael think lovely thoughts and then levitate gleefully -- the production has all the charm and delight that a child seeing the show for the first time deserves.
But the shadow of memory, particularly for one who trundled her Mary Janes down to the Winter Garden to see Mary Martin fly during the 19-week run of the original, falls heavy over an adult viewer. I never saw the strings before, or noticed the players sidling to the side of the stage to get hooked up, and the idea of Wendy begging for the treat of returning to Neverland once a year to do the spring cleaning didn't seem strange. Perhaps a more skillful production would have made the strings disappear. Perhaps it at least would have made one pretend not to see them.
The character of Wendy has always been a defect in the story. It is impossible to see her as anything but a sap, a goody two-shoes who tries to impose order in a world whose primary appeal is benevolent anarchy. It is she who ultimately brings the happy adventure to a close, insisting on a return to the real world and Growing Up, a useful literary device perhaps, but very discouraging to little girls whose only other role model in this tale is the Indian Tiger Lily, whose part is too brief to warrant serious envy. Ann Marie Lee does nothing to improve Wendy, and makes her even more revolting with a chirpy voice and phony giggles.
Thank heavens for Captain Hook and the Pirates, whose laudable goal is to catch the Lost Boys and make them walk the plank. Although Byron Webster has a voice like wet sandpaper and gives the good Captain a clumsy, buffoonish air, he has a fine streak of chortling evil to carry the day. He is rather abruptly dispatched off the plank, plopping obviously a short distance to the backstage floor. It is an exit that could surely be improved.
Of course the main appeal of Peter Pan is not the near brushes with disaster, the fairy companion or freedom to live without ever brushing his teeth, but his ability to fly. Is there a person who never jumped off the end of his bed hoping for the right current of air to buoy him into space -- or at least up to the ceiling? Flight is not just adventure but escape, a rebuttal not merely of gravity but of earthly life. "I am youth, I am joy, I am freedom!" cries Peter rather arrogantly toward the end, when his friends desert him. Theatrically, the flying must work, and in that area this production does well (despite the clumsy arrangements for accomplishing the hookups). When those kids fly, they are truly delightful.
The music and dance added to the basic Barrie story by Jerome Robbins and others is still exciting. Aside from "I Gotta Crow," which even Mary Martin couldn't sell some of us, songs like "I'm Flying," "Hook's Waltz" and "I Won't Grow Up" are as beguiling as ever.
"Peter Pan," based on the play by J.M. Barrie, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, music by Moose Charlap, additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, additional music by Jule Styne, original production conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with Karyn Cole, Byron Webster, Matt McGrath, Johnny Morgal, Lola Fisher, Evelyn Ante, Andy Hostettler, Ann Marie Lee and others.
At the Warner Theatre through Aug. 29.