REVIEW: Arden Theatre ‘Peter Pan’ a Fun, Modern Twist on the Classic Story
The Old City theater's holiday children's show runs through January 28.
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The marquee at the Arden Theatre Company may read Peter Pan, but you realize as soon as you take your seat in the F. Otto Haas Stage that this is not your Mary Martin — or even Allison Williams — version of the J.M. Barrie classic. Rather than the London bedroom of the Darling family, you see a campground, complete with a battered trailer, a bathroom building and a smoldering campfire.
And here’s Wendy (Emilie Krause), sitting in a lawn chair, reading a book. And sipping wine.
In this adaptation by Douglas Irvine, Wendy’s all grown up, with three kids of her own. You meet them as they come sneaking onstage, brandishing Super Soakers and then blasting each other in the play’s only slapstick moment (and the one my 8-year-old co-critic said was the highlight of the show). Then her daughter — the same age as Wendy was back in the day — asks about Peter Pan.
And that quickly, we’re back in Neverland.
Here comes Peter (Jo Vito Ramirez), sliding along a zipline 30 feet above the stage. And Tinker Bell, an ingenious collection of five green lights given “voice” by the violin scrapings of Eliana Fabiyi, who joins Brandon Pierce and Leah Walton to play a variety of smaller parts, including the Darling kids, Princess Tiger Lily, and Captain Hook’s intrepid first mate Smee. (Walton steals the show with him.)
Off they all go, climbing and descending rope ladders to an elevated parapet, swinging on mountain ropes, and emerging from and dropping into strategically located openings in the stage floor. Director Whit MacLaughlin makes deft use of his mutable stage (designed by David Gordon) — and small costume changes — to clearly depict and differentiate his secondary characters. And keep the action moving.
But like the original, the show belongs to Wendy, Peter, and Captain Hook, who, in keeping with this new-era re-do, is played by a woman, Catherine Slusar. And when Slusar doffs her tri-cornered hat, you see she’s bald (the result, she answered to a child’s question after the show, of a recent round of chemotherapy, but a look she thought was appropriate for Hook.)
As Wendy, Krause brings a winning earnestness to the role, though she lacks the bossiness of earlier Wendys. Ramirez takes the stage in cargo shorts and a T-shirt, not the green bodysuit usually associated with Peter. Ramirez is an athletic, physical presence, but lacks the chest-thumping cockiness and brio you expect from Peter. And Slusar plays a subtle Hook, without the over-the-top villainy normally associated with the role or the abject terror at the sound of the clock-eating crocodile (whose ominous tick-tock is all we ever see of him.)
Still, the magic of the play shines through. When Tinker Bell drinks the poison meant for Peter, as her light flickers and dims, and as Peter exhorts everyone to “Clap your hands if you believe in fairies,” the entire audience erupted in applause — led by the grandmother sitting next to me.
Peter Pan is about storytelling, the joy of adventure and the perils (and pleasures) of growing up, and a parent’s willingness to set a child free to find his or her own path. In the final scene, Peter comes back to the adult Wendy and offers to take her daughter on the same journey Wendy took all those years ago. “Can I go, mom?” asks Jane.
How would you answer?
I won’t spoil it. But here’s one thing to know: the show is long. Each act is roughly an hour, with an intermission that stretched to 30 minutes at the opening performance. That may be a lot to ask of a small child; by midway through the second act, the little kids in the audience had started to squirm. But my 8-year-old was riveted — and yours will be, too.
Peter Pan runs through January 28, 2018, at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St., Philadelphia (it’s in previews through the December 2 matinee). Click here for tickets and more information.
Photograph by Rebecca Cureton, courtesy of the Arden Theatre Co.