Just as Snow White was the cinematic fairytale du jour a few years ago, Peter Pan has become the theatrical must-have. This time last year, Cathy Rigby soared into Dallas as the boy who wouldn’t grow up, and in September we’ll be visited by Peter and the Starcatcher, a loose prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic tale. For now, the Dallas Theater Center has taken at stab at reinventing the icon through a more organic, updated approach, relying on thundering drums and hip hop dance moves to usher the story into modern times.
Visually, what first-time director Jeffrey Seller has created is stunning. Aurally, it’s a gigantic letdown. Bill Sherman’s pounding music, which uses various drums played by the cast to brilliant effect, succeeds at establishing a sense of magnitude, but Rajiv Joseph and Kristen Childs’ pedestrian lyrics consistently deflate the grand score. It’s curious, since Joseph—Dallas’ own playwright of the moment—also provides a book that’s occasionally peppered with sly lines that are laugh-out-loud funny. This disconnect in quality is the only thing that prevents Fly from soaring straight on until morning.
But back to the good stuff, and thankfully there’s enough of it to mostly overcome the disappointing score. Along with lighting designer Howell Binkley, Anna Louizos has reimagined Neverland, stripping the fanciful island of its cartoonish past and planting a living, breathing forest in its place. The spiky bamboo framework, which works like a rolling jigsaw puzzle and is manipulated into various structures by a lithe chorus, possesses a menacing beauty. Perfectly on-point, since the show opens with stylized battle in which young Peter (Grant Venable) slices off Captain Hook’s left hand (Tony Award-winning Andy Blakenbuehler provides the stomping, sinewy choreography).
Marina Draghici’s tattered costumes are also up to the task, becoming at times part of the set. When the mysterious swamp mistress Mami Wata (Broadway’s Marcy Harriell) rockets into the air, her magically-appearing miles of dress ripple out around her and consume the stage—it’s one of the show’s most arresting moments. Flying by Foy, the preeminent stage effects company that has been flying Peter Pans since 1950, provides the heavy cables and bulky harnesses that Seller has astutely and defiantly chosen not to hide.
Though there are passages that stress make-believe, Fly really succeeds when tackling the tough stuff. Wendy’s youngest brother Michael is noticeably absent in this version, and we learn early on that he died the previous year. John (Austin Karkowsky) agrees to accompany his sister to Neverland in the hopes that Michael is simply lost there, perhaps a member of Peter’s marauding band of boys. His jubilation when he believes he’s found his brother, followed by the honest heartbreak when he realizes it’s not really him, gifts the audience with a sincerely moving moment.
Less obvious but equally affecting is the treatment of the pirates. Eddie Korbich, Denis Lambert, Randy Pearlman, Patrick Richwood, and DTC’s own Chamblee Ferguson and Hassan Al-Amin are mostly sad sacks fleeing their nagging spouses, and their disillusionment with the reality of life on the high seas brings a melancholy undercurrent to their otherwise satisfyingly buffoonish antics. Bradley Dean’s operatic wail and snappy comic timing help make this Captain Hook memorable for more than just his appendage.
There’s a reason the show’s title makes no direct reference to Peter Pan: This is, ultimately, Wendy’s story. Isabela Moner is a pint-sized wonder as the fearless tomboy who enjoys blowing things up, and thankfully Joseph and Seller have crafted a young heroine who’s capable of much more than sewing on shadows. Fly will probably be remembered most for its astounding stagecraft and thrilling choreography, but it certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing if younger audience members leave wanting to not only fly like Peter, but be brave like Wendy too.
Photos by Karen Almond for the Dallas Theater Center