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Barrie’s beloved tale of the boy who wouldn’t grow up, penned by Carolyn Leigh and Mark “Moose” Charlap. Carollo’s direction closely follows the tradition of British pantomime theater. There are no mimes in pantomime the term refers to an exaggerated, family oriented musical comedy style that tends to crop up around the holidays. It’s a form that has a long association with Peter Pan, dating back to Barrie’s original play through its various adaptations. Berkeley Playhouse’s “Peter Pan” has many of pantomime’s key elements a fairy tale story, an exaggerated style of acting, copious slapstick and gender crossed casting with a woman (a wonderfully energetic Amanda Sylvia) cast as the eponymous Peter. The result is a sweetly old fashioned musical production suited to its pint sized audience.
The one key change made to the 1954 musical is the re envisioning of the original’s Indians as a fantasy girl gang of Neverland natives whose members wear cotton candy colored Cyndi Lauper get ups, complete with tutus and glitter face paint. Here, they are the ambiguously dubbed “Warriors,” an attempt to strip them of any offensive allusion to an existing group of people. The change was made specifically to avoid the problematic aspects of Peter Pan’s painfully stereotypical vision of Native Americans. It’s a noble effort, and it’s fun to see girls dressed up like Lisa Frank punk ballerinas stage kick pirates in the nuts. But songs such as “Ugg a Wugg,” which feature nonsensical gibberish words and vaguely “native” orchestration, never fully escape those representational problems of the original. Productions of the 21st century might be best served doing away with the number entirely.
The rest of the musical is straightforwardly done. The Darling children fly off to Neverland where they encounter Lost Boys, Warriors, Pirates and promises of eternal playtime. They are kidnapped by Pirates and rescued by Peter in the knick of time. Eventually, the Darling children return home to grow up, Lost Boys in tow, leaving Peter behind in Neverland to live forever as a boy. The production is paced just a beat too fast for emotional punches to land effectively. Because of its young target audience, the show is burdened by overacting, predictable slapstick gags and a perfunctory tone. Children get clarity and an appropriately timed bedtime, but older audience members are deprived of much genuine emotional connection.
Luckily, the musical’s star Amanda Sylvia is a pleasure to watch, a perfectly boyish, tactless, confident and fundamentally sad Peter Pan. Sylvia is a great physical performer, agile and playful, with an impeccable Peter stance chest puffed out, hands on hips, chin aimed up toward a world that is his eternal playground. Her glinting eyes and charming, white toothed grin capture Peter’s charisma but she also manages to capture his moments of ignorant cruelty. Sylvia’s assertive line delivery makes Peter’s unthinking brushing off of Wendy’s emotional entreaties appropriately devastating. When Wendy asks Peter timidly what his exact feelings for her are, clearly hoping for more, Peter’s answer is “Those of a devoted son, Wendy.” Sylvia plays this with a confident, oblivious insensitivity that cuts deeper than a more intentional act of cruelty precisely because it is so casually indifferent.
The show also shines in its charmingly inventive set design and effects. It is a low tech production, but the sets are artfully designed particularly in the imaginative vision of Neverland as a swirling, psychedelic floral paradise. The transformation of the orchestra pit into a makeshift ocean in the finale fight sequence is also particularly imaginative, featuring an appearance from the Hook chasing crocodile.
Berkeley Playhouse’s Peter Pan is a decidedly G rated version of a fundamentally melancholic story. Peter’s tragic denial of real connection and reality is only lightly touched upon, and the weirder implications of the traditional double casting of George Darling and Captain Hook goes mostly unexplored. For a family friendly holiday production, Carollo’s choice makes sense, but doesn’t give kids enough credit. Barrie’s classic is so enduring precisely because of its darker themes, as is true of so much children’s literature. Maybe we should all believe a little more in children’s capacity for darkness and strangeness, to show them honestly the sinister and the melancholy and the thrilling parts of the awfully big adventure that is growing up.