If you have a child or grandchild you’d like to introduce to ballet, does The Washington Ballet have a show for you. Artistic Director Septime Webre’s Peter Pan is a cherry lollipop of a production that will have them begging for ballet (or at least dance) lessons as it takes you back to your own Peter-and-pirate-filled childhood.
The curtain opens on a watercolor backdrop (sets by Campbell Baird, who also does the costumes) that fills the space, left to right, top to bottom. It’s a fantasy island with mountains and palm trees, set in a blue sea with a prominent red compass at the bottom right corner. Suddenly a shadow sweeps across it: a boy, dancing. The incongruity of the images is a canny introduction to a show that will both confirm and confound the expectations of anyone who comes in thinking he knows what awaits him (her).
Much like, in fact, the Darling children.
The curtain rises on a dark-blue-skied, cutout-star-canopied room with three beds: two to the left; the largest one, clearly a girl’s, to the right. The room is dominated by a bulbous yet unobtrusive charcoal-sketch fireplace to the far right of the girl’s bed, and a massive dollhouse downstage to our right. Two boys, John (Ariel Breitman) and Michael (Gus Pearlman) Darling, dressed in gray PJs, are having at it, bouncing on one of the beds, playing pirates and fighting to the death. Their sister Wendy (Aurora Dickie), in pale-pink, knee-length, white-bodiced gown, has other things on her mind, but soon joins in.
In the first of what will be several character jolts, in bounds a huge, black-and-white, floppy-eared, puppy-friendly, panting (with bright red pendulous tongue), grinning dog, Nana (Marshall Whiteley) in maid’s cap and apron, whose infectious desire to please and play swiftly upends the game. The dog’s disproportionately huge head is used to humorous advantage by Webre as the two rambunctious boys alternately pull, push, tug, ride on and get pushed and shoved by the huge but pliable mastiff.
Mr. and Mrs. Darling (Luis R. Torres—doubling in a what must be a real kick of a character switch as that most iconic of storybook villains, Captain Hook—and Kateryna Derechyna) enter to bid the kids goodnight. Lighthearted, affectionate and cheerful, the parents seem almost like children themselves in demeanor and movement as they tease and joke with them.
As the lights dim, a buoyant pastel globe of sparkling light in blue, white, and yellow floats across the stage and settles in the dollhouse. Heralded by what we will come to know as the character’s motif, a figure sweeps heroically across the stage: It is Peter Pan (Jared Nelson), dressed in leafy (literally: they comprise his top, in various shades) green and brown.
Peter tries valiantly to attach his shadow, which has fallen off him, laying it on the ground this way and that and lying on top of it, hoping it will stick. Curious, Wendy approaches him, Dickie’s movements at once graceful and childlike, in a skillful fouetté. The deed accomplished, the lights go down, and their shadows briefly dance merrily together. Nana re-enters and tries to join in, Whiteley’s movements comically canine, with back legs awkwardly splayed out behind. (While playing the role is no doubt a lark, controlling not only your limbs but the sweaty, weighty costume they’re in can be no day in the park for the dancer.)
Wowed by Peter’s ability to be airborne (courtesy of Flying by Foy, whose wires are only intermittently visible, depending on the lighting and angle) and intrigued by the premise and promise of Never Never Land, John and Michael eagerly take him up on his offer to teach them how. Breitman and Pearlman make a delightful duo, infusing the boys’ trial and error with a charmingly telling mixture of innocence and bravado, the one flapping his arms wildly like a demented eaglet, the other shaking hands and limbs hilariously like a rock star in training.
Cut to Never Never Land, where Tinkerbell, whose sparkling avatar intrigued us earlier, is now personified as a slender, dark-haired, elfin creature (Francesca Dugarte, dancing with sylph-like grace) in chignon and candy-pink tutu. The backdrop has changed to a woodsy landscape, incongruously including (as it might in a child’s imagination) palm trees among the gnarled oaks and stately pines. The six Lost Boys, dressed in riotously mismatched rags that still somehow play off the colors of the backdrop, the clashes highlighted by an occasional spot, dance with ungainly glee, their legs jutting out at odd, and at times seemingly (and, as if emphasizing their “boy”ness, indifferently) painful angles.
Next we meet the Fairies, some in the guise of mermaids with long blond hair who flip their iridescent blue-green fins with panache, then wiggle them with teasing playfulness when they plop down and sit at the front of the stage. Their Edenic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Wendy, who’s been welcomed in a way Peter never anticipated: shot down by one of the Lost Boys. We have little time, however, to feel shock or dismay: With a sprinkle of Tinkerbell’s magical pixie dust, Wendy is back on her dancing feet, happily none the worse for wear.
This is, to be sure, a show whose sensitivities are aimed at the younger set, but one whose artistic sensibilities will reach their parents and grandparents. First staged by Webre for The Washington Ballet in 2001, the original production has been expanded with an additional 32 characters (mainly sprites, fairies and mermaids), all of whom hail from the ballet’s academy, The Washington School of Ballet. The corps is impressive, from the featured players to the smallest (in both senses of the word) supernumerary: human, non-human—and inhuman.
Ah, yes: the pirates. And their leader, Peter’s cruelly (or proudly, take your pick) nicknamed nemesis: the heartless Captain Hook. Torres mugs hilariously, but without falling into the tempting trap of vaudevillian exaggeration, his face as mobilely expressive as his alternately jerky and limber legs, feet, and torso. The pirates are dressed in a contrasting primary-color complement to the Lost Boys’ natural hues: bright solids of red and blue, orange and black. (The Captain’s red vermillion calf-length jacket is a standout.)
Snarlingly fearless and heartless he is, till he hears the deadly tick-tock of his own nemesis’s clock—the terrifying sound of his personal Moby Dick; one of a different, if equally fearsome species: the Croc, an enormous, wide-jawed, seriously nasty beastie. (Another exercise in diabolically brilliant, because diametrically opposite, part-doubling, with Whiteley, earlier the happy, eager-to-please Nana, this time wearing what must be another killer—in this case, pun intended—costume of shimmering sea green, complete with heavy, thrashing, possibly six-foot tail.)
But: wait; not so fast. You may want to put a muzzle on that pre-judgment, my friend. For this creepy, crawly, sneakily slithering, lunging-and-chomping sea creature’s not your average aquatic reptile. He’s also—hold on to your incisors—a break dancing hip-hop artist. Which Whiteley pulls off with Lilou-worthy, hip-swaying, sashaying style.
The music throughout is a lush pastiche from the Romantic to the rococo, the Classical to the theatrical, from B’way to Bboy. Composer Carmon DeLeone wrote the entire score a score of years ago (1994) over a three-month period, “borrowing” from his own favorite composers, and in so doing, honoring his “musical heroes.” You can indeed hear strains of Bach, and nods to Strauss and Gershwin, but always purposefully: illustrating mood, situation or character; never as gratuitous, show-off salute.
The dancing, too, while mostly in the classical style, has nods to the neo-classical and even contemporary. Wendy’s dancing and music generally reflect her character and personality: steady, structured and caring, yet gentle and light; while Peter’s and the Lost Boys’ are wide-open and free, adventurous and asymmetrical. There are, however, some “pas” that combine, if not align, these disparate styles and characters.
One is an exquisite pas de deux at the start of Act II at once by and between the two leads, the music airily graceful and demure for Wendy (Dickie), the plucked strings suggesting the technical precision of her steps; and energetically forthright for Peter (Nelson), reflecting his position as leader of the Lost Boys, who with their feral sautés and free-wheeling leaps, proclaim their in-your-eye immunity from rules and responsibility.
“The story of Peter Pan is a compelling one,” says Webre, “as it reminds us to live our lives cherishing the child within.” He succeeds in portraying that, in this equally child-friendly, grown-up-welcoming show
Note: there are two alternating casts.
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Peter Pan plays through April 27, 2014 at The Washington Ballet performing at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater -270o0 F Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324, or purchase them online.