I Believe! Peter Pan at the New Victory Theater – Show Review by Amy Wall Lerman, Editor-in-Chief, Baby Bloomer

Peter Pan was never one of my favorite childhood stories.  With its erratic plot lines and strange characters, it wasn’t an easy “story” to like in the same way I enjoyed a good fairy tale. If I were asked today what the story is about, I suppose I’d give the same answer everyone else does: It’s about a boy who doesn’t want to grow up.  But is that what it’s really about?  It seems to have been written by an attention-deficited adult for an audience of like-minded hyperactive boys.  But it’s a story I always wanted to like because, well, I liked Tinkerbell, and as part of a dying breed, she needed me.  She needed me to believe in her, in Peter, and in a crazy story that twists and turns in and out of nowhere (aka Neverland).

Why couldn’t I like the story of Peter Pan?  Well, despite the swash-buckling adventure; a hook-handed pirate with a fear of a hungry crocodile; a boy-hero who saves a girl from a plank-walking plunge, another from a kidnapping, and yet another from a poisoning and extinction, I couldn’t like Peter. I couldn’t understand how he could be loved by three different female characters, Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell, and Wendy, and not respond to it, or even recognize it for that matter.  He couldn’t even comprehend the concept of a kiss until Wendy planted one on him.  While we are supposed to blame the lack of maternal love for these qualities, Peter is so frustratingly emotionally detached that he doesn’t even long for a mother the way the Lost Boys of Neverland do.  While Peter saves Tiger Lily from Captain Hook’s clutches, he does it because it is the honorable and brave thing to do.  He saves Tinkerbell out of desperation for something…companionship perhaps…or just the fear of the extinction of fairies. And Wendy, poor misguided Wendy, who goes along for an adventure before she is forced to enter the grown-up world despite being told that she’s wanted (or needed) strictly as a mother-figure to keep the yearnings of the Lost Boys.  Neverland is a place where boys can dream of forever and girls get to watch at arms length.

While I can now put into words why this story worked against my childhood (and adult) sensibilities, I cannot explain why generations of children remain enthralled.  My six year old son included.  He was completely enamored by the performance we saw last weekend at New York City’s New Victory Theater.  If you’re familiar with my previous children’s theater reviews, you will notice that I have a huge affinity for the New Vic performances. I applaud their selection of travelling shows and this one from Australia’s Belvoir Theatre is no exception. It is understandable how this particular take on a classic play came to life when you learn that the Belvoir Theatre is located inside an old tomato factory with a tiny stage in the corner.  Imagination is everything.  Despite my mild disregard for this rather nonsensical story, this troupe brings Peter Pan to life in a way that would grab any child who has ever put on a play in his/her own bedroom.

I know the image of Mary Martin or Sandy Duncan singing and swinging from the rafters is playing in your mind right now, but this show is sweet and cool, not hokey.  It is perhaps closer to what J.M. Barrie’s original Edwardian play was meant to be – only updated to represent how we live now in the 21st Century. There are no strings attached here – just implied flight, in the form of jumping from a chest of drawers or bunk bed because, after all, that’s what a kid would do. Unlike a big Broadway performance with fancy sets and orchestras, this show takes place in a child’s bedroom.  Any musical numbers are performed on a child’s drum set and the Jolly Roger is hoisted over blanket-covered furniture stacked to resemble something akin to a pirate ship.

In this more modern take of the story, Peter, played by the rather dashing Meyne Wyatt, does not have exaggerated points on his ears, or curly-tipped shoes, and he doesn’t wear a Robin Hood-esque feathered cap.  This Peter looks more like a military recruit headed out for a jog.  He maintains the tough swagger and impish charm of Peter but there’s nothing elf-like about him.  While the children, Wendy, John and Michael Darling and their Victorian-styled parents are portrayed in the way they were intended by the playwright, almost every actor doubles up their roles throughout the show.  Mr. Smee may appear as Mr. Smee one moment and the next, he changes his hat, and poof, he’s a Lost Boy.  Oddly enough, Tinkerbell is primarily portrayed by one person but more often she appears as just a flickering light. But despite her frequent lack of physical portrayal, her presence and moodiness are evident throughout the show.

For me, jaded adult that I am, my favorite character was Captain Hook.  Not because Hook is particularly interesting but because of the actor, Charlie Garber, who portrayed him as a despondent and under-employed Hamlet-wanna-be. He first appears in spotlight, center aisle, toward the back of the orchestra section, holding a cup of tea in his one good hand.  When he speaks it’s with the air and accent of a Shakespearean actor using old English prose that includes words like “doth” and “ought.”  He even delivers a monologue standing upon his faux pirate ship when he is rudely interrupted by the bird call of his nemesis.  When he asks, “What is that sound?”  My son shouted, “Peter Pan” to which the audience burst into laughter and applause.  It was not the first time Mr. Garber responded on stage to a child’s reaction.  He seemed to thrive on these moments, ad-libbing his way to the next scene. Moments like these are testaments to any actor working in children’s theater because they can rest assured that they’ve captured their intended audience.

When my son called out the response to Captain Hook, it was also the moment I realized just how engaged my son was with this show.  I had watched him out of the corner of my eye throughout the 85 minute, no intermission performance and relished in every belly laugh, look of awe, and vocal response.  But it was perhaps his undiminished focus and indomitable belief in the adventure before his eyes that made me think about my own emotional detachment from the story line.  While my mind wandered, once again, my son’s never strayed.  

Now I know the secret behind the undying fascination with Peter Pan:  It was written for children like my son who are not unlike Peter Pan himself.  It’s for children who long for adventures that don’t need to make sense.  Each twist takes you to a new thought and a new place – a place that only children understand: where a kiss from a girl might be gross; mothers are a necessity; a tough little fairy has the purest of souls; bad guys get what they deserve in the end; children can fly away from their parents and never grow up; and Neverland is a wonderland as close as your bedroom door.

My usually fidgety, talkative, distractible son was glued to this rambling tale for a length of time my husband and I don’t often get to see.  His pure innocence, intense imagination, love of adventure and a good story led to his unflinching concentration last Sunday afternoon – and this was enough to have even me crying out with utter conviction, “I believe, I believe, I believe.”

Peter Pan will continue at The New Victory Theater through Sunday,
October 13th.  Tickets are available at the box office: 229 W. 42nd Street, in New York City and online.