High on pixie dust12/18/2013
When “Peter Pan” starts to soar at the Des Moines Playhouse, it bears out an old theater truth: A spectacle begins with a spectacular set. The shifting landscapes of “Pan,” from the interior of a Victorian nursery to the exterior of a Neverland pirate ship, it could be the best I’ve seen in a homegrown production. With each rotation of the central verticals and horizontals, Peter and Wendy and the Lost Boys find different playspaces and hideyholes. The pirates, Indians and parents are either thrown into fresh confusion or, for a moment, positions of power.
Even the crocodile that ate Captain Hook’s hand, a construct worthy of Chinese New Years, joins in the capering. The wire-work flying will be what the kids remember, but every detail enhances the magic. To Tim Wisgerhof, scenic designer, hats off.
Of course, the concept has long proven a winner. Back at the turn of the previous century, J.M. Barrie came up with this gauzy vision of childhood’s end, akin to “Alice in Wonderland.” These days, the fantasy can feel disquieting — a boy who never grows up keeps flying off with pubescent girls — but this hasn’t kept the play from becoming a worldwide smash. Fifty years after the London debut, Americans threw in songs like “I Can Fly,” and the result was a hit in every medium. Other than in the Disney version, though, just as in Barrie’s original, Peter Pan himself has always been played by a woman.
At the Playhouse, Samantha Arneson thumps her chest with the best of them, Tarzan with a voice to match, and friskier than in her recent “Cats” role. This works just right in the strutting “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” but doesn’t adapt as well to the downbeat moments. Some of the problem, to be sure, lies with the musical’s structure. Its greatest intensity comes just before intermission, when Peter turns to the audience and asks if they believe in fairies. After that, Act II is anticlimax.
Playing Wendy, Meredith Toebbenz can suffer the opposite as Arneson. Toebben’s a tad restrained even when high on fairy dust, but she’s never a weak link, despite the fact that, still in high school, she’s the youngest principal onstage. The oldest, KIOA’s Maxwell Schaeffer, shakes off the stiffness of his “Producers” role, delivering both cartoon excess as Hook (dancing to “Pirate Song” he demonstrates that a tango is all in the hips) and mock severity as the Darling children’s father.
Were I to pick out one player who defines the show’s delights, it would be Katelyn Ilene McBurney. As Tiger Lily, the Indian princess, her role is almost wordless, but McBurney seems to need no more than elbows and chin. In the best number, “Ugg-A-Wugg,” her grin would be death for most theater (hey, stay in character!), but it’s perfect for the moment, and all the more impressive because in a recent turn on StageWest, her face was mostly shadow and concern. This woman’s worth keeping an eye on. CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.