A Stranger, Sexier Version of ‘Peter Pan’? It’s Leonard Bernstein’s.
Posted July 16, 2018 2:44 p.m. EDT
If there’s traffic on the Taconic State Parkway, head for the second star to the right and fly straight on till morning, which should bring you to Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts in time for “Peter Pan,” Christopher Alden’s production of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, spangled with Leonard Bernstein’s neglected music.
Here we are in Neverland, which is chartreuse, you will find, and dotted, for reasons inexplicable, with potatoes. This single set, designed by Marsha Ginsberg, fizzes with playful menace, suggested most blatantly by a rickety fairground ride. The cars are flying sharks. Childhood, this play suggests, is an unsafe space. Rider beware.
If you know “Peter Pan” only from the 1953 Disney cartoon or the 1954 Broadway musical or the 1955 telecast, all now marred by casual, unapologetic racism, then you will experience this version, which ran on Broadway in 1950, as stranger, sexier, more melancholic. Not quite a musical, it was advertised at the time as a “fantasy with music.” There are eight songs, two reprises, a lot of instrumentals. Though Peter, the boy who would not grow up, might object, I’d argue that it’s a more adult work, ruefully aware that if children don’t grow up, it’s not because they’ve been spirited away to some enchanted isle.
Alden’s bouncy, mournful, occasionally abstract production seems to use a pirate’s line, “This is queer,” as mischievous inspiration. It takes that Freudian nonsense about homosexuality as developmentally immature and defiantly runs with it. (Flies with it?) Maybe this emphasis on queerness doesn’t work in every scene, but any interpretation that allows the choreographer Jack Ferver to chassé while wearing a disco ball cannot be dismissed.
Peter (Peter Smith, an impish nonbinary comedian) intuits that growing up means mommy-daddy stuff, which is awfuller than all the awful things that ever were. Since the play’s vision of marriage is the wonky relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Darling, who’s to say he’s wrong?
Peter would rather romp with the Lost Boys and the fairies. He wants Wendy (the marvelous actor, writer and cabaret performer Erin Markey), the girl he willingly steals from the Darling home, as his cook, laundress and chief tucker-iner. Not as his girlfriend. He doesn’t have the hots for Tinker Bell (Ferver, delicious and mean) or for Tiger Lily, played by a frisky Rona Figueroa, who also doubles as Mrs. Darling and the crocodile. (Alden has recuperated Barrie by cutting all of Tiger Lily’s lines, regrettable only because it means less Figueroa.)
The play’s tragedy, if you want to think of it as a tragedy, is that Wendy tries to tether Peter to a mature sexual relationship while he wants to fly free. Her desire is explicit enough in the play, but the Bernstein score makes it more so. In “Peter, Peter,” Wendy sings, “I want to feel your touch.” Which squicks Peter out. She can’t accept his queerness and keeps asking him to clarify it. “What are your exact feelings for me, Peter?” she asks.
“Those of a devoted son.”
This production declines to work against the play’s suggestion that female sexuality is not only icky and no fun (Barrie’s only marriage was rumored to have been unconsummated, so ...) but also perilous. When a rejected Wendy leaves Peter, she’s captured by the blood-guzzling Captain Hook, played by the thrilling baritone William Michals, who also doubles as her father, Mr. Darling. That’s creepy, so it’s very lucky that Markey, an actor of sublime mania, is on hand to dignify and enliven Wendy.
Much of the Bernstein music, performed by a six-piece orchestra, is simple, wistful, splendid. (Bernstein’s own opinion was different. He announced a post-Pan commitment to “writing some real things.”) Even a person like me, ruined by early exposure to the blissful “You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!,” can thrill to his trilling flying music, the jouncy shadow dance, the spry pirate numbers.
Still, Wendy’s plangent ballad “Who Am I?” (now best-known via Nina Simone) is all wrong for her practical character — it’s a better fit for Peter — and her final lullaby, “Dream With Me,” sung to Peter already flown, seems almost cruel: “A kiss we never dared/We’ll dare in dreaming.”
Oh, honey. Not likely.
Through July 22 at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York; 845-758-7900, fishercenter.bard.edu
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.