"I Gotta Crow." (from L) Nolan Almeida as Peter Pan, Hawa Kamara as Wendy. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Sir J.M. Barrie’s play, Peter Pan, has seen many iterations over the years. From evolving into a Disney movie and becoming a beloved stage musical to enduring countless film reimaginations, there’s just something about this story that audiences can’t get enough of. And, honestly, it’s not hard to see why. There are fun fantasy elements, surprisingly complex characters, and, quite literally, “darling” children. However, there are also some rather problematic representations of Native Americans . . . at least until now.
Thankfully, a newly-imagined production, one that features more responsible, more sensitive storytelling, has solved that glaring problem. Onstage now at the Durham Performing Arts Center, under the direction of Lonny Price, this new version still holds true to Jerome Robbins’ adaptation but also features additional book by Larissa FastHorse. Thanks to her additions, Neverland has become a home to varied Indigenous individuals who have come to the magical island to protect and preserve their cultures. Of course, the Lost Boys are still there too, as are the pirates and the indomitable Peter Pan. Plus, Morris (Moose) Charlap’s music and Carolyn Leigh’s lyrics (with additional lyrics by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Amanda Green) are also still present and are enriched by Lorin Latarro's dazzling choreography. In fact, this new version manages to keep every classic moment while making the story better, fuller, and even more engaging.
Even the show’s heroine, Wendy, portrayed by an endearing Hawa Kamara, has gotten a much-needed, much-more-interesting personality makeover. This Wendy has big dreams of becoming a surgeon, and she lives in a world where viral videos and internet fame are top priorities. Despite her more modern aspirations and interests, she still finds herself whisked away when Peter Pan (Nolan Almeida) comes calling. And, with a Peter Pan like Almeida, it’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t follow him. At just seventeen, the young actor brims with charm, charisma, and joy, all of which he pours into this iconic character.
As the two travel to Neverland, with Wendy’s little brothers, Michael ( an adorable Reed Epley) and John (the equally adorable William Foon), in tow, the world onstage jumps to life. They leave Anna Louizos’ beautiful, elaborate nursery set behind for her fantastical fever dream of a Neverland, brought to life with vibrant graphics, moving “turtles,” and more color and dazzle than even a cartoon interpretation can provide. And, yes, the flying scene, largely enhanced by wonderfully dizzying visual effects, is everything you want it to be and then some.
In Neverland, audiences are introduced to the dastardly Captain Hook, portrayed with just the right combination of mean-meets-funny by Cody Garcia. Garcia, of course, also does double duty as Wendy’s father, Mr. Darling, and they are perfect in both roles. Plus, the lightning-quick costume changes that happen later in the story are quite impressive.
Neverland also brings an incredible, much-improved version of Tiger Lily as portrayed (with great strength) by Raye Zaragoza. She strikes up a friendship with Kamara’s plucky Wendy, and together, the two help form an allegiance between the formerly disparate Neverland inhabitants. As this new alliance goes up against Hook (and a very silly Smee, thanks to Kurt Perry’s hilarious performance), viewers will find themselves cheering for these characters in a way they never have before.
Filled with tongue-in-cheek pokes at the original story (a dog as a nanny? seriously?), refreshing modernizations, and the old-fashioned magic of bringing a fairy back to life, this Peter Pan is truly perfect for all ages, a Peter Pan that everyone can feel good about. It blends the old and the new in amazing ways and brings about equally amazing results. It’s the kind of Peter Pan that can (and should) live on forever.
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