Saturday, December 6, 2008

Peter Pan, Beck Center

(Michael Mauldin as Captain Hook and John Paul Soto as Peter Pan)

For the past few seasons, Beck Center has celebrated the holidays with a superlative production of the Broadway musical Beauty and the Beast. And while it featured spot on acting performances and stylish choreography, one of the keys to its success was outstanding singing.

This year the Beast has shuffled off the Beck holiday stage, it’s place being taken by a flying boy and a trio of English children named Darling who follow him to the stars. The good news is that this version of Peter Pan is very well acted and sublimely designed and staged. But the lack of superior singing voices, like the ticking croc that stalks Captain Hook, spells the show’s ultimate doom.

This oft-seen musical, with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh and music by Mark Charlap, rolls out the fanciful James Barrie story about Peter Pan, a boy who won’t grow up. This concept may not seem like much of a stretch and not all that charming, especially to the legions of women who have to deal every day with adult males who act like overgrown boys. However, Peter at least has the good sense to play all his eternally boyish games with his little buddies in Neverland, a testosterone fantasyland filled with snarling pirates, marauding Injuns, and lots of running, jumping and fighting.

These are the parts that come across with freshness and verve under the direction of Fred Sternfeld. Managing a large and very young cast, he succeeds in making the scenes with the lost boys and the pirates snap with excitement and spontaneous energy.

This is helped along in no small way by the casting of John Paul Soto as Peter. In a role that is often taken by a woman, who then has to try to butch up, Soto is naturally all-male and he brings a startlingly direct and unabashedly macho perspective to Peter. In other words, this Peter never seems to be boy who’s a bit light in his leafy loafers.

Unfortunately, Soto’s singing just doesn’t match his acting chops, and he has most of the important songs throughout the play. Even though he gets by, barely, in two early songs (“I’ve Got to Crow” and “Neverland”), the demanding evening grinds down Soto’s vocal chords until, by the final reprise of “Neverland,” he’s croaking out any note at all to finish his assignment. For those who recall Mary Martin, or any number of other performers who have played this part, the musical aspect of this Peter Pan will be tough sledding.

But apart from that, this production fairly sizzles with professionalism, in the air and on the ground. The inventive choreography by Martin Cespedes is even better than his usually stellar work, turning often ho-hum dance interludes, such as the first appearance of the Indians, into must-watch sequences. And director Sternfeld knows how to nail the beats so they the story never loses focus and even the smallest kids in the audience can follow the plot and remain engrossed for the three-hour running time (including two intermissions).

The star of the show, however, is Michael Mauldin as both uptight Mr. Darling and snarky Captain Hook. Chewing the scenery with such maniacal delight that he may require extensive dental work after the run, Mauldin luxuriates in every syllable of Hook’s lines and spoken "songs." Putting his own fey twist on the Johnny Depp sissy-pirate trope, and sampling ever so subtly from Cyril Richard’s original performance back in the 1950s, Mauldin often creates laughs with just a glance or a single sound.

Mauldin is ably supported by Brendan Sandham as his first lieutenant Smee. Thin as a bent wire coat hanger, Sandham has perfect timing as he grovels and flinches under the gaze of his captain. Indeed, all the pirates as well as all the lost boys acquit themselves well and with unrelenting vigor. And as Tiger Lilly, the agile leader of the Indians, Alexis Generette Floyd is athletic and adorable.

Even though the show tends to unravel a bit in the third act, during a shipboard fight that is beset by a plethora of awkward moments, this Peter Pan hangs together well in terms of pacing. But musicals are about music, and that’s the part of this review that’s, um, a Pan.

Peter Pan
Through January 4 at the Beck Center,
17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood,

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