Fly is a new musical adaptation of Peter Pan – by Jeffrey Seller, a Tony Award-winning producer-turned-director — and it’s making its debut at the Dallas Theater Center. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says this is a contemporary Peter Pan, darker and much more centered on the figure of Wendy.
- Front Row review
- Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
- TheaterJones review
- KERA Radio review:
- Expanded online review:
This isn’t your Uncle Walt’s Peter Pan. In J. M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan — and in the subsequent adaptations, like Walt Disney’s popular 1953 animated film — Wendy has always been the sensible, Edwardian child. Remember: Peter spirits her away from London to Neverland so she can be a mommy for the Lost Boys.
But in Fly, Wendy’s not a child or a mommy. She’s an American teenager, a truant resentful over being grounded, eager to ditch her thoroughly comfortable home which she calls a “nightmare.”
These are definitely what people call ‘first world problems.’ But there’s something of a third-world solution. For Wendy, Peter Pan offers an escape from boring school and rigid parents, an escape to an island adventureland of bamboo treehouses and hip-hop dance moves (courtesy of choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler). The look, the sound, the special effects, the entire world of Neverland is Fly’s spectacular achievement — thanks to the production team (sets: Anna Louizos, costumes: Marina Draghici, lights: Howell Binkley).
Neverland is an Afro-Caribbean idyll full of flying kids in raggedy cargo shorts and hi-top sneakers, where a pirate ship is a rusty tramp steamer and where everyone dances to composer Bill Sherman’s musical numbers, with their thunderous percussion and shouted choruses. The island is a giant, kids’ playhouse turned dance club.
All Peter Pan adaptations are about what it means to grow up and leave such a place. But the adaptations have different answers for what you give up and what you gain in this transaction, what it means for a child to become a fully-functioning adult. The 2003 live-action film, for instance, is the first to have Wendy and Peter struggle with what is clearly their first adolescent sexual attraction. In Hook, Stephen Spielberg’s dry-docked 1991 movie, being a real adult means being a caring, engaged parent. Peter has grown into a family man but a dismal, distracted father. Captain Hook nearly steals his son away by simply paying attention to him.
In Fly, childhood has the freedom of flight and fantasy, but it’s also a limited, little world, a narrow trap. The children have to forget in order to fly (it’s not about about magic dust and thinking happy thoughts here). So they literally live for the moment, unconnected to anything, remembering nothing. Peter is a dream-come-true for Wendy – until she discovers he remains a boy because he remains self-centered and irresponsible. When Captain Hook kidnaps the Lost Boys, Peter tells Wendy he really doesn’t care. Shrug. There’ll always be more Lost Boys to want to join him. Wendy finds she has to woman up to save the day.
Second-act story problems are the most common difficulty with new musicals. Fly feels simultaneously schematic and a little fuzzy about what all these Jungian archetypes are trying to say. Each character is paired off in an older and younger version. The comic, sadsack Pirates — they’re like Jimmy Buffet pirates, guys who’ve run away from their jobs and their wives for some rum and some threadbare fantasies of high-sea adventure — the Pirates are really just the Lost Boys grown big (in the program, the actors playing the Pirates are even credited with a Pirate name and an ‘adult’ Lost Boy name).
The same thing with Hook and Peter: One’s just an older, more desperate, more dangerous version of the other. As Hook, actor Bradley Dean is terrifically compelling, sympathetic even as he’s scary. He’s not the traditional foppish sea captain, he’s more self-aware, an angry, funny, unhappy, aging Hook. In a remarkable duet, Hook imagines Peter begging for his life — only to find himself taking on Peter’s voice, finding Peter inside himself.
But over the course of the show, bookwriter Rajiv Joseph has Hook confronting Peter twice and Wendy twice over the same issues, and the sameness of the pounding music doesn’t help prevent the feeling that Fly is treading water. For Wendy, there are two older female characters in Neverland. Tinker Bell has always been impish and hot-headed; she’s a fairy, she’s both helpful and destructive. She doesn’t follow human rules. But having an adult actress (Morgan Weed) play Tinkerbell alongside real-life teenage boys adds a creepy quality to her. She’s like an adult play-acting as a naughty kid, emphasizing her most childish aspects as if to fit in. Tink ends up part-sarcastic den mom, part-cougar.
Fly also introduces a new female character, Mami Wata, sung with impressive power by Marcy Harriell. Originally, Mami Wata was an African mermaid spirit; essentially, she replaces Barrie’s now-politically-offensive characters of Native Indians and Princess Tiger Lilly. But in Fly, Mami Wata seems to represent the force of time itself; how the characters face the passage of time is up to each of them.
As Wendy, Isobela Moner has a huge singing voice. If she feels too fresh-faced and eager to play the sullen girl at the start, she performs with energy and bouncy confidence. So which of the two older female characters is Wendy’s grown-up avatar? Neither, it turns out. But if this Wendy needed a strong female role model, she wouldn’t do badly in looking to the show’s dance chorus. These fly girls give Fly much of its punk-tribal texture and excitement with their singing and dancing. When they’re not doing all that, they often hammer at drums in big choruses, they rig the young actors’ safety harnesses and they push the giant tree forts into place, shaping and re-shaping the set. They’re credited simply, somewhat bewilderingly, as ‘Trees.” I took them to be woodland spirits, Tinker Bell’s relatives.
In truth, they are non-stop Amazons, and they provide much of the real stage magic in Fly.
The opening number in Fly – the first battle between the Pirates and the Lost Boys, Hook and Peter, as Wendy looks on in her bedroom: