Friday, March 11, 2005

Peter Pan (Playhouse Square Center)

PETER PAN’ flies happily through the Palace Theatre

James Barrie’s Peter Pan character has had a long and prosperous life. He was the central character in a play which was published in 1904, adopted in 1912 into a book called “Peter and Wendy,” a musical in 1950, a Disney full-length animated film in 1953, a Sony feature film (entitled ‘HOOK’) in 1990, an A & E television production in 2000, a second Sony film in 2003 and ‘FINDING NEVERLAND,’ a 2004 film which starred Johnny Depp and was nominated for several Academy Awards. Peter was also the central character in a ballet, which received a fine local production by Ohio Ballet. He has even been the basis for The Peter Principal, a psychological theory regarding why certain men refuse to mature emotionally. That’s a long journey for a boy who refuses to grow up.

Peter has been portrayed on stage by the likes of Maude Adams, Marilyn Miller, Eva La Gallienne, Jean Arthur, Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan and most recently by Cathy Rigby. Interestingly, the role of Peter has not been played in a major production by a male.

Rigby, the former Olympic gold-medal gymnast, first appeared in the role in the 1988 national tour of the musical. She received a Tony nomination in 1991 for the Broadway 35th anniversary production of ‘PETER PAN.’ Interestingly, most people think of Rigby solely as an athlete, not knowing that she appeared in professional productions ‘SEUSSICAL THE MUSICAL,’ ‘ANNIE GET YOUR GUN,’ ‘MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS,’ ‘SOUTH PACIFIC, ‘PAINT YOUR WAGON,’ ‘THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG, and ‘THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN.’

A major question to ask is why Peter and his lost boys, his search for a mother, Tinker Bell, Nana the nursemaid dog, and Peter’s conflicts with Captain Hook has remained so continuously popular? Theories abound including that he speaks to each of us through spectacle and fantasy, especially the thrill of flying. He allows children and adults alike to live those fantasies about friendship, fighting the evil doers, and bonding to special people in our lives. It allows adults to rekindle the magic of when they were children and the roles they play in the lives of children. And, of course, in the musical versions we are there carried along by the wonderful songs and dancing.

Cathy Rigby and Peter Pan have almost become synonymous. In the minds of many, especially the younger generation, she is Peter Pan. Rigby has made the role into a family business. In the present touring production of the play, now on stage at the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square, not only Rigby, but her daughter, son, mother-in law, sister, brother, sister-in-law, nephew and husband are all part of the act.

It took nothing more than watching the children around me on opening night to experience anew the magic of the play. One little girl, all dressed up in her finest clothes, complete with black patent leather shoes and a frilly pink dress, sat on the edge of her seat through the whole production, smiling, jumping with glee, clapping loudly when Peter appealed to the “kids” in the audience “to believe” so that Tinker would be saved, booed loudly when Captain Hook appeared for the first time, and cheered when Captain Hook fell overboard. Two children sat perched on their father’s lap with their lobby-purchased telescopes securely attached to their eyes, watching each and every moment. No sleeping for these kids though it was close to 10 when we finally exited the theatre.

Rigby sings with gusto, the cast has a wonderful time singing and dancing to the fine music, the flying is still magical even though the wires are clearly seen. Rigby somersaults while suspended, swinging madly from side to side high above the heads of the audience. Howard McGillin is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful as Captain Hook, and Patrick Richwood is delightful as Mr. Smee, the bumbling pirate.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The sets and costumes are getting a little frayed from the long road tour, the production is getting a little stale, but the overall effect is magical. This is Rigby’s last appearance in the role, so if you and your children are ever to see the legend in action, this is it. It’s worth a trek through the snow to be entranced once again by Peter Pan.