The songs “I’m Flying” and “I Won’t Grow Up” from the musical Peter Pan are burned to memory thanks to the Broadway production with Mary Martin in 1954. Perhaps you watched it rebroadcast on a black and white TV. Admit it. You’re half humming those songs right now. The production by Olympic star Cathy Rigby ran for 40 years. Or perhaps you’re a fan of Walt Disney’s animated film version from 1953.
They all grew from Sir J.M. Barrie’s little book and original play that was deemed too high tech with its scary flying apparatus and big sets back in 1904 London.
Favorite characters and traditions from the old shows, including sets, costumes, and props from the Rigby tours, introduce Peter Pan to a new generation in Steven Glaudini’s high-flying production that runs through Aug. 6 at Vista’s Moonlight Amphitheatre. With 25 actors singing and dancing, and 23 musicians in the pit, this is the perfect summer show for families and anyone who likes pirates – dancing pirates.
Like Martin and Rigby before her, Misty Cotton is a scrappy petite woman in the role of Peter. A native of Oceanside, she grew up on the Moonlight stage and had local fans cheering on opening night. She sings with strong vibrato, which is a challenge when whirling around on a wire. By the time she gets to the drumming and sword fighting, she’s almost out of breath.
She and her pal Tinkerbell fly through the nursery of the Darling Residence to Neverland and back again, kidnapping and rescuing children along the way. Tink is a fairy with a dark side created by a green laser. Kids of all ages will admire the pirate ship and crow’s nest. A gnarly underground home suggests a fort built by a beaver clan as well as cousins stealing mom’s blankets.
Jill Townsend plays the optimistic and bossy eldest sister Wendy Darling in charge of younger brothers John and Michael (played by talented Elliot Weaver and Jacob Farry). They start out saying “Muthah” but seem to lose their fake British accents, which is a good thing. Celest Lanuza stands out as the exotic Indian maiden Tiger Lily.
Robert J. Townsend is a showstopper as the wonderfully vain Captain Hook, hooking the audience with his lacy garb and curly wig in the first few seconds. His shrewd comic timing and big voice carry several scenes, and he’s quick enough to respond to friendly boos from the crowd. He and James Vasquez, who plays his sidekick Smee, are two loveable fools. Loyal Moonlight ticket holders may remember Glaudini performing as Smee in 1996. Choreographer Carlos Mendoza creates hilarious tango and tarantella dances for the whole pirate crew.
There’s also a percussive ensemble section in “Ugg-a-Wugg” that mixes singing, hand slapping, and drumming with sticks. Some of the best vocals come from the Lost Boys, who want Wendy to be their mother.
Whoa. The whole mother thing and having a woman play the role of Peter is where the Peter Pan story becomes a big pan of lasagna. Theater is all about imagination, but some may find it a stretch to have a mature woman dressed as a man pretending to be Wendy’s husband and father to the Lost Boys. Then he begs her to be his mother.
And there’s the woefully dated depiction of American Indians. Deer-skin costumes and the tom-tom beat are old-Hollywood style, which was typical for the 1950s, but wincingly incorrect today.
The tradition of cross-gender casting of a woman to play Peter Pan began with Barrie’s first play. Women were lighter than men, and were a safer choice for high-wire stunts at the time. The music was written for a woman’s voice. The tradition stuck.
He was inspired to write the Peter Pan story after his brother died. Stories have been told about how he dressed in his dead brother’s clothes in an effort to cheer up his grieving mother. He was the boy who didn’t want to grow up. But he did grow up and became friends with famous writers, such as Sherlock Holmes writer Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells.
Barrie’s Peter Pan has evolved, slowly. The animated version features a scrappy boy and a few other stage productions have cast a male in the role. The Moonlight show follows tradition. Mr. Darling and Capt. Hook are played by the same actor. Nana the giant sheep dog and the Crocodile are also played by the same actor (actor Quinton Walker gets huge applause).
This high-flying Moonlight show is a playful dose of nostalgia, and delightful performances make it a best pick of the summer. If little ones fall asleep, be sure to wake them up for the big swooping finale.
Peter Pan runs through Aug. 6. http://www.moonlightstage.com/performances/peter-pan