We've seen wit from Septime Webre before, but the Washington Ballet artistic director outdoes himself in his production of "Peter Pan," which the company revisited over the weekend at the Warner Theatre.
Webre has a grand time with slapstick and farce, causing the pirates to careen into one another like bumper cars and giving the Captain Hook-hating crocodile just the right amount of attitude. The scene in which Peter dons a tulle skirt to seduce Hook away from the maiden he holds captive -- an episode full of perfect send-ups of the love duets from "Giselle" and "Swan Lake" -- is one of the gut-bustingly funniest you'll ever see in a ballet.
"Peter Pan," which premiered here three years ago, is successful not only because it tells the J.M. Barrie story of childhood wish fulfillment clearly and vividly, or because the production moves at such a pleasingly fluid, rhythmic pace. This is the best work we've seen from Webre yet because he indulges his huge talent for comedy.
The jokes would go nowhere, however, without the dancers' expert delivery, particularly John Goding, who doubles as the addle-pated Mr. Darling and the flamboyantly hapless Hook, and the gifted Jason Hartley in the title role. Peter is a natural role for him -- he is boyish and acrobatic, and hysterical as the hirsute sylph who captures Hook's heart.
Hartley is an eerily versatile dancer -- he can do Balanchine, he can do supercaffeinated modern, he would probably leave skid marks on a Broadway stage. Here, he takes to the air (with his harness and wire) impressively easily, and his first swoop high, high above the stage brought at least one child near me to his feet in open-mouthed astonishment. But Hartley hardly needs help to fly. His jump is so pneumatically grand, his positions in the air so sharp and sustained, that there were times when it wasn't clear if he was being machine-assisted or not.
The ballet's chief drawback is the score by Carmon DeLeone, music director of the Cincinnati Ballet (with whom the Washington Ballet shares the whimsical sets and costumes, in a cost-saving venture). The music rarely rises above the level of generic adventure-flick soundtrack, and you can feel the ballet sag as the orchestration gets overblown and flabby.
Webre could enliven the mushy bits with a wider range of expression. There were times when his choreography became routine and predictable, as when he relied on reruns of earlier scenes. He has always loved to give Michele Jimenez, his favorite ballerina, lots of turns and high leg extensions, but her Wendy looked a lot like her Juliet and her Carmen -- roles in other Webre creations.
A final note: How on earth could the ushers feel that Peter's entrance, his thrilling, soaring flight into the Darling nursery, was an appropriate moment to parade latecomers up and down the aisles, blocking views throughout the theater? A few minutes later comes a scene-changing interlude marking the children's journey to Never-Never Land -- seating stragglers then would seem to be a no-brainer. The Warner crew would do well to consult with some of the other venues in town for tips on a more courteous seating policy.