Peter Pan has arrived. And El Dorado Musical Theatre’s version is not Peter Pan like you’ve ever seen it before. I’m one of those whose memory of Peter Pan goes back to the Disney movie (first run, mind you!) and Mary Martin playing the title role on TV. So when I attended opening night of this production, a lot of the musical numbers were new to me. And the way those musical numbers were staged makes me believe that you could not possibly have seen Peter Pan done like this. Director and choreographer Debbie Wilson works from a script, but I bet it doesn’t tell her how to choreograph the dance numbers – or maybe even whether certain songs should be choreographed. And it is the choreography that puts this show over the top. In every EDMT show I have seen choreography and dance moves that I’ve never seen before – that I couldn’t even have imagined. And this show was no exception. It felt like there was one highly choreographed, high-energy scene after another. It was stunning.
Compared to what was to come, the opening scenes of the show were pretty tame. What stood out to me in the early going was the consistency of the accent in the dialog, pretty much across all the characters. Even Professor Henry Higgins might not have been able to pinpoint what part of England the speakers came from, but they sure didn’t sound like they were from around here and that helped craft the wonderful illusion unfolding on the stage. The illusion was helped by EDMT’s typically elaborate sets, beginning with that of the Darling’s nursery. But the effect of the sets paled in comparison with that of the flying, starting with Peter Pan’s entrance, soaring through an opened window. I think everyone in the theater knew in advance that the actors would be flying, but it’s still impressive when you see it, and there were some delightful surprises that involved actors suspended above the stage.
The first few scenes also helped focus attention on the character of Peter Pan. There is a fascinating back story on the casting and preparations for this show in the online magazine, Stage Pass (click here to open it in a new window). I had read the article before the show, and so I knew something about Kiersten Hunter and what she went through to get ready for this role. Knowing all that, as I watched her perform, I became convinced that it was not a high school girl up there. She didn’t speak, sing, act, look, or move like a girl (or even any boy I’ve known). That was Peter Pan. The transformation was perfect.
Of course, Peter Pan is not really a comic character, but so many of the others are: Andrew Wilson was a deliciously evil Captain Hook, and his pirate crew (especially his cousin, Zach Wilson as Mr. Smee) were hilarious, as were the lost boys and the Indians. I think the comedy was enhanced because the audience, many of them enthused EDMT fans, were really charged up. How charged up? Hook enters the stage for the first time, and they boo him. His reaction? “But I haven’t done anything yet!” Surely that wasn’t in the script, but it was one of so many fun moments in this show.
As is always the case with EDMT, the singing was strong, due no doubt in great measure to the efforts of vocal director, Jennifer Wittmayer. I spoke with Kiersten Hunter’s voice teacher at intermission, and I’m sure a lot of special work went into crafting that character singing voice that came through so strongly. But what surprised me most was the ensemble sound when the stage was full, including the youngest performers. It was a pleasing, unified, articulated sound that really delivered in some important numbers.
And speaking of the youngest performers, what impressed me (and the people sitting next to me) even more was their mastery of so much complex choreography. Sixty-plus kids of all ages executing the same sharp moves in almost perfect unison, for minutes on end – while singing – was simply amazing.
Once again, the costuming for an EDMT production was nothing short of inspired. For the pirates and lost boys especially, it looked like Christine Martorana and her associates just let their imagination run wild – except for Captain Hook. His costume seemed to me like a wonderful combination of how Hook appeared in the original Disney movie and the character Dustin Hoffman played in the movie, Hook. And the way they did the crocodile was especially fun, drawing laughs every time he appeared.
I have to end by emphasizing the dancing. The big dance numbers (and there seemed to be more of them in this show than in other recent EDMT shows) were fascinating, engaging and simply stunning. Between the dance numbers and the staging, it sometimes felt like the activity was nonstop: Indians then Lost Boys then pirates then Indians, etc. To me, this was a constant, high-energy visual feast.
There are a lot of shows and concerts I want to see in the coming weeks, but having seen the Neverland Cast, I’m terribly curious to see what the Tinkerbell Cast can do. If I can see this show twice, and you’re still not sure about seeing this show once, please keep this in mind. This is not a holiday kiddie show. This is a major production. And I don’t think there is a jaded adult or a TV-numbed child who would not find it wildly entertaining.
UPDATE: I saw the Tinkerbell Cast last night and (no surprise) it was the same outstanding show – except that all the actors were different, an amazing feat in itself, considering how complex the action was. Bethany Wheat’s Peter Pan was the same energetic, androgynous, self-confident, character I saw last week, with her own strong singing voice, and with enough differences to be interesting and fun to watch. Alex Levy was a somewhat taller Captain Hook but with the same swagger and buffoonery I saw before, and Dylan Gray’s Mr. Smee was full of his own style of physical comedy. As he entered for the first time, Hook met the audience’s booing with the same “But I haven’t done anything yet,” so maybe the line was scripted – or maybe it was a clever ad lib from opening night that was worth repeating. Oh sure, I have my favorites (in both casts), so I’m glad I saw them both. And the consistent quality of the two casts is yet another tribute to the excellent planning, training, coaching, and directing that characterize every production of the El Dorado Musical Theatre.