children respond to the same story – whether we’re talking about the 1911 novel by J.M. Barrie or the various stage versions, and especially the 1954 musical adaptation made famous by Mary Martin.
Kids, of course, love the action and adventure, they love the fairies, pirates, the natives, mermaids, the crocodile, the swordfights – and who doesn’t love that little flying boy.
Adults, on the other hand, tend to get strangely weepy about Peter Pan, and I have observed—as recently as last weekend when I saw the massive production of Peter Pan presented by the Mountain Play association on Mt. Tam – that the older we get, the more emotional we become.
This becomes a little complicated for us, since we’ve been trained since adolescence that we’re all supposed to grow up eventually and let go of childish things, even fairy tales about the psychological cost of growing up and letting go of childish things.
Peter Pan was never intended as a story for children alone, as is pretty obvious to any adult who’s ever read Peter Pan aloud to children and been shocked to find themselves giving a careful dissection a pirate murder, or describing a group of drunken fairies on their way home from a fairy “orgy,” or decrying the cruelty and “heartlessness” of children.
Peter Pan is, to a large degree, a psychological and sociological examination of the differences between childhood and adulthood, culminating in the observation that each holds benefits and deficits not available to the other. In other words, Peter Pan is a very sad story.
Fortunately, it’s also a blast.
And in the smart, entertaining, visually inventive Mountain Play production. there is plenty of that cool, kid-friendly stuff and plenty of heart-stopping emotion to choke up the adults who still remember what it was like to be a kid, to play and imagine and pretend like our lives depended on it.
Director Michael Schwartz, a Broadway veteran with an eye for spectacle, shows a keen sense of how to use the enormous stage area of the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre overlooking the San Francisco Bay. On a set resembling a summer camp playground in the woods, pirates, natives and lost boys erupt from all corners of the amphitheater, the crocodile is assembled from spare tires and puppets.
An invisible fairy knocks things over and pulls hair.
Magical animals prowl.
Trampolines are hopped upon, teeters are tottered, and bright-colored balls are bounced out into the crowd.
As Peter, Melissa WolfKlain displays a strong singing voice and a nicely boyish sense of rough-and-tumble confidence, making it obvious why Wendy and her brothers would leave the safety of their beds and follow him to Neverland. The villainous but somewhat foolish Captain Hook—played well by Jeff Wiesen) and his right-hand man Smee – a hilarious David Yen – do a good job of straddling the balance between threat and comedy.
Most importantly, Peter flies, beautifully, thanks to some conspicuous but still magical pulleys and wires.
Kids will be happy as clams, and older folks will be happy and sad at the same time—they may even wish they could be kids again while being secretly glad they never will, because, hey, that’s the magic of Peter Pan.
‘Peter Pan’ runs Sundays though June 21 (and one Saturday, June 12), at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre.
I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.