Do you believe in fairies? Magic? Even if (or especially if) the answer is no, I recommend gathering up the children in your life and getting back in touch with your own inner child with a visit to Neverland, in the form of Palo Alto Players' production of "Peter Pan" (I think I just maxed out my alliteration quota for this review).
For more than a century, J.M. Barrie's story of the boy who never grows up has stood with classics such as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz" in the pantheon (no pun intended) of English-language children's fantasies that pass the test of time.
You probably know it well, but in case you're rusty on the basics: Wendy (Brittney Mignano), John (Amay Goel) and Michael (Billy Hutton) Darling live with their mother (Gwyneth Price) and blustering father (John Bisceglie) in the luxury of upper-middle-class Edwardian London. Prim-and-proper (some might say bossy) Wendy is on the verge of adolescence, nearing the end of her nursery days. The Darling children are looked after by their devoted Nana (who happens to be a dog), but when Mr. Darling decides it's time for Nana (played by Eddie Standifer III) to spend the night outside, the nursery receives a nocturnal visitor in the flying form of Peter Pan (Corrie Farbstein), the legendary, spritely boy who ran away from home as a newborn after hearing his parents discuss what he might do as a man. He refuses to grow up and leads a crew of "Lost Boys" on the mythical island of Neverland, where he flummoxes his nemesis, the dastardly pirate Captain Hook (Bisceglie again) and his mates. Peter, accompanied by his best friend, the sassy fairy Tinker Bell, has been sneaking around the Darling house in order to listen to Mrs. Darling's bedtime stories. Wendy instantly develops a crush on this strange fellow, and Peter is smitten with her as well, although his wish is that she be his mother (yes, there are Freudian undertones aplenty). Wendy agrees to assume maternal duties for the Lost Boys, and she, Peter and her little brothers are soon flying to Neverland. There, they undergo all sorts of marvelous adventures and swashbuckling battles before making the difficult decision to return back to the real world.
"Peter Pan" has been thrilling audiences since 1904, and with its revival of the 1954 Broadway musical, Palo Alto Players maintains the old-fashioned, pantomime vibe, which works wonderfully, even as the production puts its own spin on things, such as giving Neverland a retro-futuristic steampunk look, and transforming the offensive "Indian" stereotypes (Tiger Lily, played with badass aplomb by Catrina Contini, and her tribe) into vaguely punk-rock "warriors" (it's still a bit cringeworthy, but the effort is appreciated). The soundtrack includes memorable numbers such as "I've Gotta Crow," "I'm Flying" and "I Won't Grow Up" as well as the famous audience-participation "Do you believe in fairies?" sequence. And you're never too old to ooh and aah when characters suddenly take flight.
The affection Palo Alto Players has for the material shines through, with an impressively Pan-experienced cast and crew. Director/choreographer Janie Scott, for example, actually made her Broadway debut in the 1979 revival. Contini has thrice played Tiger Lily, while Bisceglie has portrayed Captain Hook a whopping seven times. His performance is delicious: never too scary, just delightfully, and slightly campily, evil. The newcomers, for the most part, keep up well with the Pan veterans. Most importantly, Farbstein is absolutely fabulous in the title role, exhibiting Peter's innocent charm and bravado as well as his clueless childhood selfishness, through both her voice and movements. Her singing, too, is perfection. Farbstein comes from a family of local theater folk (her sister is currently starring in Broadway by the Bay's "Singin' in the Rain, also reviewed by the Weekly this week), and she certainly does them proud here.
Some technical difficulties with the microphones or sound system at the performance I attended led to some unfortunate hissing and feedback and occasionally made it difficult to understand bits of dialogue. Presumably, that will be sorted out for future performances.
The Players' production is very brisk: Good for keeping momentum up but the poignant ending did seem a bit rushed.
I attended with my 4-year-old theater-reviewer-in-training and she gave it a rave review (Captain Hook was a favorite), as, judging by the enthusiastic cheers and applause surrounding me, did the many other children in the crowd. I was also honestly surprised by the emotional resonance I felt seeing it as an adult. It's much more bittersweet than I remembered, as Peter cries out against having to grow up and learn about "solemn things," as Wendy nears the end of her childhood, as characters struggle with the complexities of parent-child relationships and the crocodile's ticking clock of fate catches up with all of us in the end. Well, almost all of us.
Charming and nostalgic, "Peter Pan" is a great choice for families seeking some good old-fashioned entertainment this season.
What: "Peter Pan"
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Thursdays to Sundays, through Nov. 19.
Info:Go to PA Players.