James M. Barrie’s immortal youth first debuted in London in 1904, and this musical version achieved its own indelible stature when Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard brought it to live television first in 1955 and finally to videotape in 1960. Sandy Duncan owned the part throughout the 1980s, and Cathy Rigby picked up the baton in 1991 and has grasped it tightly ever since, appearing on Broadway in four separate engagements (as many as original star Maude Adams) and touring the beejeezus out of it in between for what I would estimate are upward of 2500 performances. Now 50, she whistle-stops through Los Angeles on what can only be called a “post-farewell” tour. It’s not quite like Sarah Bernhardt doing Queen Elizabeth on film in 1912, but I presume this particular vehicle has seen better days.
It isn’t bad, really, and will probably serve for those young enough to be new to the material, which remains appallingly acute psychologically and famously breaks the fourth wall to save Tinker Bell. At this point, though, Peter Pan is less about memories of an ideal childhood than one’s memories of Peter Pan. Peter incarnates a brand, and so does hard-working Rigby, whose bona fides as a producer of theatrical entertainments are substantial. The production allows her to embody Peter’s hyperactive restlessness through athletic stage movement, and Lord knows she has nailed the part to a fare-thee-well, yet no matter how great she looks and what tiptop condition she is in, she is irretrievably too old to believe as anyone who has never grown up, and when she sings, the same inference is unavoidable.
The songs remain sturdily catchy, although the uneven miking does not mix well at the Pantages with the band, which favors faster tempos. So, too, the choreography has been tarted up, although the dances, especially featuring the Tiger Lily of Jenna White, are among the sturdiest pleasures of the show. The musical comedy conventions, by contrast, now seem a remote idiom for a contemporary audience that can no longer discern the flair of light camp from antique burlesque.
Still, many must share experiencing through this very musical their first realization of the true magic of theatricality: it’s not that we believe a boy can fly, it’s that we can see the wire work and joyfully choose to suspend disbelief. Barrie has been unjustly overshadowed as a writer by this domineering success: while his plays often evince the sentimentality of arrested development, they remain muscularly conceived and subtly realized. Some have been revived locally of late with success; there remain many more.
Venue: Pantages Theatre (runs through January 27)
Cast: Cathy Rigby, Brent Barrett, Krista Buccellato, Kim Crosby, Jenna Wright, James Leo Ryan, Lexy Baeza, Michael A. Shepperd, Clark Roberts
Director: Glenn Casale, original production conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins
Music: Moose Charlap, additional music by Jule Styne
Lyrics: Carolyn Leigh, additional lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Choreographer: Patti Colombo
Set designer: John Iacovelli
Lighting designer: Michael Gilliam
Costume designer: Shigeru Yaji Sound Design: Julie Ferrin
Musical supervision and direction: Bruce Barnes