Jack Ferver in “Peter Pan,” which runs through July 22 at Bard Summerscape.
Bard College’s wonderful summer festival of music, art and theater takes place in the magical Frank Gehry building shimmering on a greensward on campus in the lush Hudson Valley. So for me, no matter what happens inside the theatre, excitement and beauty abound.
Sometimes it is difficult to reconcile inner confusion and missteps with the outer environment, and this summer’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Peter Pan” proves this theory. It is Bernstein’s 100th anniversary and thus many productions and homages abound, and justifiably. He was, and still stands as a marvel of a modern composer and innovator. His “Peter Pan” had a brief run in 1950 only to be eclipsed by the more famous Mary Martin “Peter Pan” a scant four years later, but the music of Bernstein and the wonderful words of Scotsman J.M. Barrie live on even if they are often eclipsed by a production so over burdened by kitsch, props and strange Darth Vader voicing that it made some audience members scurry for the door and others, this reviewer among them, to wish, oh please let us just hear this glorious music with perhaps some Tinkerbelle-voiced human reading the remarkable words of Barrie. This was not to be.
The production, directed by the often-lauded Christopher Alden, takes place on an acid green stage and opens with the frantic placement of potatoes along the proscenium. Five Bard students clad in matching green run from a shopping cart piled high with spuds to the edge of the stage in what seemed like a strange reality TV contest. The small orchestra, with great re-envisioning of the score by Garth Edwin Sunderland, plays the grand music. Stage left is a working carnival ride consisting of five metal sharks that can whisk lost boys, Peter or Wendy back and forth to Neverland or serve as the trundle beds for the boys after Wendy is transformed into their mother. This was a lovely design concept wrought by Marsha Ginsberg, and one that seemed remarkably clear in the midst of the miasma of mermaids in shopping carts, pirates in ski masks with digitally scary voices or any of a host of myriad unwelcome diversions from original music and words.
A production still from “Peter Pan,” which runs through July 22 at Bard Summerscape.
This reviewer adores experimental works, having toiled at the nest of experimentation, LaMama ETC, for decades, but often experiments in performance are like the advice given elegant women by Coco Chanel, “Before you leave the house, always remove one thing (an accessary), less is more.” Alden’s direction was often frantic to the point that I might have believed there was a fire off stage or that the bus back to Manhattan was leaving ahead of schedule. But there were some winsome touches as well. Jack Ferver played Twink, oops Tinkerbelle, in a gender-bending fluid, fun way as he danced and twirled to his own choreography or led cast members in steps he devised. Captain Hook, voiced by the superb William Michals, was a joy even when dripping too much stage blood and spitting into Peter’s medicine in an attempt to poison him. His Captain Hook’s soliloquy was such a welcome, glorious break that it brought down the house, deservedly.
Bernstein was commissioned to write only musical accompaniment for the 1950 production, but of course in typical overachieving fashion he also included seven original songs. “Who Am I?” happily receives a reprise sung the second time by the excellent Rona Figuero after an earlier, confusingly weird version by Erin Markey, who plays Wendy. Markey (whose chosen pronoun is they or them), delivered their lines in an unexplainably flat way as if they were perhaps part robot. So it was a treat to hear the lyrically melodic song revisited by Figuero.
As with much of this production, less would have been so much more. However, it was was a treat to listen to this glorious, usually forgotten Bernstein score and to hear the words of Barrie. Barrie, through the voice of his childish, never-grow-up characters, expresses so much of the angst we all feel as we struggle with being grown up in a scary world, often yearning to dip our toes back into a childhood we perceive as safe, but most probably was filled a sense of being a lost boy or girl in a constant search for “Who Am I?” Go for the music and words.
“Peter Pan” runs through July 22 at Bard Summerscape, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. For more information, visit the show’s website.
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