By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
If they gave out prizes for the Wackiest Successful Broadway Musical, surely they’d just hand ’em all to Peter Pan and retire the award. Though I was dateless for Pittsburgh CLO’s production of this fantasy musical, I kept whispering to my imaginary seatmate: “Did that just happen?” “What the hell was that number about?” “On what planet does this make any sense?”
Not only is the show odd, its gestation is pretty screwy, too. It started as a play written by J. M. Barrie in 1904 about a boy who can fly and lives on the Island of Neverland where he, and several other orphaned boys, have adventures with pirates, fairies, mermaids and … well, what a Scottish playwright in Edwardian England called “Indians.” Anyway —
Seven years later Barrie turned the play into a novel and then, later, back into a play. It became a British pantomime staple and, over here, showed up as a stage play, a silent film, a Disney cartoon, several live-action movies … and a brand of peanut butter!
Peter Pan continues through July 21. Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, Downtown. 412/456-6666. www.pittsburghclo.org
But let’s talk about the 1954 “play with music” version written as a vehicle for Mary Martin (numbers by Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh.) That out-of-town production didn’t, you should pardon the expression, fly so Julie Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green added more songs and their revamped musical landed on Broadway. Peter Pan owes its initial success to television. For many years, live studio versions of the Broadway production (and eventually taped repeats) were broadcast on TV and became an American holiday ritual.
There is not a second you’re not sharply aware of the show’s patchwork DNA and higgledy-piggledy style. But just as notable, and probably even more important, is the enormous charm Peter Pan sends hurling out over the footlights. This is the kind of show you love completely or not at all and because the CLO has put together such a hugely entertaining production it’s very easy, for a few hours, to love it completely.
Director/choreographer Patti Colombo has been working on various Broadway, regional and television productions of Peter Pan for a lot of years and it’s immediately obvious she knows the show inside and out. There are some cuts – the number “Oh, Mysterious Lady” is gone – plus some more substantial changes. The “Ugg a Wugg” song (which would be inexcusable presented in its 1954 form) has been transmogrified into a huge, and thrilling, percussive dance sequence. Colombo has overseen a production where entertaining an audience is the prime directive.
Which brings us to Jenn Colella and her fireball of a performance as the title character. With the force of her joyous, infectious and powerful presence she is the glue holding together this production. There’s flying, dancing, singing, moving sets, child actors and grown actors in animal costumes, but Colella has all of it clutched tightly in her hand and it’s simply impossible not to beam ear-to-ear when she’s onstage.
Charles Shaughnessy gets the hammy, shameless role of Captain Hook and, thankfully, is appropriately hammy and shameless, given a delightful assist by Patrick Richwood as Smee. It’s a big dance show (not surprisingly since the original director/choreographer was the legendary Jerome Robbins) and this production features a high-energy ensemble bringing even more movement and life to an already airborne evening.