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THEATER REVIEW:
"Peter Pan"

by Donald Munro
The Fresno Bee, December 10, 2008

The flying is fun in the Musical Theaterworks Fresno production of "Peter Pan." Overall, however, the show doesn't soar.

A combination of this old chestnut's clunky book, languid pacing and a generally less-than-robust sense of confidence hamper this production. On the plus side, the show is cute, the costumes are sweet and the cast is earnest. And the sheer technical challenge of the event -- from the flying sequences to the massive sets (perhaps a little too massive?) -- is impressive. A lot of hard work went into this production, and it shows.

Marcia Brase as Peter Pan
But at the Sunday evening show I saw at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, the magic was often hard to find. When Peter Pan flew for the first time through the window of the children's bedroom -- a much anticipated moment that should bring at least a small gasp to the audience -- there was absolute zero reaction.

That's not good.

I'm sure that some children, especially small ones, will find a lot to love about this show, including the bright colors, Debora Bolen's imaginative costumes (the Crocodile and Nana are big hits), Kaye Migaki's whimsical choreography and the boisterous energy of Captain Hook's band of pirates. I suspect that many adults, however, will find it harder to connect -- not because of an inability to "imagine Neverland" or any of the other nostalgic childhood themes of the play, but simply because the dated material never exceeds kiddie-show blandness.

If you think I'm being too hard on a children's production, remember that this annual holiday slot is turned over to Musical Theaterworks Fresno, the community-theater arm of Children's Musical Theaterworks. The cast is fully auditioned, and adult actors play most adult roles.
The biggest problem is the slow start to the show. Director Jeff White struggles in the deathly long opening scenes -- they seems to stretch on forever -- to find a way to pick up the pace. After meeting the Darling children -- Wendy (Brittany Holmes), John (Philip Sarkisian) and Michael (played at the performance I saw by Brandon Adams) -- we get the arrival of Peter (Marcia Brase, who has a fine singing voice and a sweet but undeveloped stage presence). I'm not sure why the scene ended up trudging along at a snail's pace (although I did notice a signifcant lag time between line readings), but the impact is deadening. Perhaps it's because the bedroom set is so enormous, which, I understand, had to be done to accommodate the flying sequences. The big, wide-open expanse of the first scenes isn't helped by Laura Vogt's nighttime lighting design, which never invites the audience in to the coziness of the bedroom.
The pace picks up a little once we get to Neverland, especially when we meet Captain Hook (a fine Nate Butler, who puts his boisterous all into the role). The Lost Boys, too, are highlights as they scamper with appropriate enthusiasm.

There are plenty of old-fashioned elements in "Peter Pan" to offend modern sensibilities, especially when it comes to gender stereotypes and the band of Indians, but I'd like to think that there could be a way to stage these scenes with at least some contemporary awareness. I suspect that White would have liked to do that, but it just doesn't come across.

Overall, it's a big and ambitious production, and there is some dazzle on display. But "Peter Pan" doesn't rank in the top tier of this company's community-theater holiday offerings.

The reporter can be reached at dmunro@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6373.
Read his blog at fresno beehive.com/author/donaldmunro.
"What's that you say, Donald?"
There were many on-line responses to Donald Munro's review of "Peter Pan." A few are reprinted below for your enjoyment.

Comments:


And this is why you are the Bee's reviewer.

You couldn't have said it better...your words were obviously very carefully and well chosen.

My problems with the show are many, but here's the key to me: Who is the show for? It's FAR too long for little children (with 2 intermissions, the show runs 2 hours 20). It doesn't possibly connect with adults. Teens haven't the desire or attention span.

I know when you sign the rights to a show they often insist you don't cut anything, but there's much that should have been cut here. The dance sequences are basic (Kaye did the most she could with the, um, 'diverse' set of talents), and could have been cut in 1/2. Peter is wholly unable to connect with the audience, striving as she is to simply get through the show in some sort of acceptable timeframe.

My fave part is when Peter translates tinkerbell's (also slow) piano tinkled-voicing and says "Tink called you a stupid ass."

Sure enough, 2 rows ahead of me, the maybe 5 year old boy said it - "stupid ass!"

Overall, as you say, it's a big and ambitious production, but since they're trying to lure and please actual audience members, it should have been reduced to a smaller, more pleasing production. Clearly over the head of the incredibly talented and incredibly overworked Jeff White. I mean, for goodness' sake, he was doing Rocky as actor and set designer, and also did the sets for this AND had to direct??! Jeff needs to learn to say 'no' sometimes.

Again, Donald, a well-written review of a pretty poor showing (Joel Abels just rolled over in his non-existent grave). I was wondering how you'd handle the production, and whether you'd lower your expectations in a non-Joel CMT production (having said that, Sweeney was pretty darn good without Joel...so I'm saying this was an aberration, I hope).

Posted by: Stephen at December 10, 2008 10:54 AM

*****


i saw the sunday matinee, and marcia brase must have had a better performance as peter earlier in the day ... i thought her stage presence was fine, and that she was the highlight of the show for me. i liked the way she walked as peter, and it came across as natural.

i do agree that the material is dated, but my bigger issue is its narrow focus on being a show primarily for kids. the ideal production would appeal to me, too. maybe if the company were able to cut some of the scenes and/or moved at more of a brisk pace. there were way too many dance sequences (though well-choreographed) that did nothing for advancing character development or the story, and took me out of the theatrical experience.

again, this is mostly a knock on the source, not the execution. it's just not the best outlet for the director's obvious talent as a set designer (i'd love to see what jeff white would do with a community-theater production of, say, "wicked").

i will say, overall, that it was well done. i loved the flying (very impressive), the costumes, and i think nate did a great job losing himself in hook's getup (i kept asking, is that the same guy who i just saw as jim morrison last week?). i just wish his character (and the rest of the cast) were given more to do than just cater to kiddie sensibilities.

Posted by: will at December 10, 2008 11:19 AM

*****

I went tonight with my comp tickets. Some thoughts:

There weren't many people there tonight. Maybe not even a third full, yet the sound was still on full blast. Made for some strange echoing.

I loved the flying. So cool. If I were a kid, I would totally think it was real. Even with the huge black cords.

And although the play was definitely geared towards a younger crowd, a few things confused me. First, I don't think that 'silly ass' needed to be involved. Especially not 3 times. LOL. The parents in front of me gasped. Everytime. Second, there was way too much time between the 5 minute stage change and the second intermission. The kids started talking; getting restless.

But, Donald, you were right on with the stage set-up. It was too big to allow for a normal speed. The opening scene seemed to drag on forever, and everytime the characters tried to use the whole stage, there was the same problem.

I loved it though. Brought me back to when I was a kid, and my grandmother read me the book before bedtime. Thanks for the tickets.

Posted by: Tracy at December 10, 2008 10:15 PM

*****

I don't know enough about plays and productions to be able to properly comment on theater like Donald can. But I attended tonight and had a great time. I'm not a huge Peter Pan fan, nor have I been to a lot of children's theater. But I thought the production was ambitious, campy, and fun. It's worth seeing.

And a note to Marcia Brase as Peter Pan: My goodness, you are a beautiful woman.

Posted by: Jeffresno at December 10, 2008 10:58 PM

*****

1) I think the flying is great! Not many productions of "Peter Pan" have flying.
2) Yes, I will agree our sets are a little big. But I mean come on! They look GREAT!
3)I agree about our costumes. A lot of work went onto that department as well.
4)Yes. Our show starts off kinda slow but I do not blame that on our actors. They did the best with what they were given. (They do a wonderful job at it)


Overall PETER PAN is the most talented, hard working, and best cast I have ever worked with. From the cast to crew everyone is amazing. Come see the show =)


Posted by: Cast Member at December 10, 2008 11:33 PM

*****

I'd like to send a thanks out to Munro for not holding back -- assuming he didn't. Community theater is our schooling; how will we ever soar to our potential heights without taking a good, honest look at ourselves while constantly striving to improve what we see. This project has been overwhelming, and so rewarding. Come and see the show; I can't imagine anyone who would regret it. Come and find the magic... it's there... just let yourself believe.

Posted by: a cast member at December 12, 2008 5:49 AM

*****

As a member of the cast, my opinion is clearly biased. I have never seen this production of Peter Pan, at least not from the point of view from which it should be viewed, from the audience. What our audiences will see today in our last two performances is a much improved version of what Donald Munro saw last week. The long first act and scene changes are clearly shorter. The show is now much more crisp and tight.

As a “seasoned” performer well-accustomed to greeting audiences after a performance, I know hollow compliments and can distinguish them from the real enthusiasm and sincerity I’ve seen this week. In spite of the dated script, audiences are caught up in the J. M. Barrie’s imagination and the magic of theater. Just last night, I met a teenager after the performance whose excitement and sheer joy were so evident in his face and particularly in his eyes. He asked about the next production and I could tell he is already looking forward to his next CMT/MTF encounter. His delight was infectious and invigorating; real nourishment for the soul of a performer.

Finally, what continues to impress me with each and every CMT/MTF production are the smart, dedicated, hard-working and oh-so-talented young people I have had the privilege to share the stage with. I am so blessed to know them and learn with and from them. We close tonight and tomorrow we strike the set and clear the theater. To each of the cast, production team and crew, it’s been a pleasure and I look forward to our next production together.

From my onstage point-of-view, this is a good show and worthy of the time and ticket. It isn’t perfect, but… maybe today.

George Akina
Mr. Darling & Cecco


Posted by: George Akina at December 13, 2008 11:17 AM

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