Theater archives

A Feel-Bad Version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Peter Pan” Erupts at Bard College


In 1950, a production of Peter Pan — using the J.M. Barrie text, but tricked out with eight Leonard Bernstein songs and a buzzy, jazzy score — sprinkled its fairy dust on Broadway. It had its ups (critical acclaim and more than 300 performances); it had its downs (Bernstein seems to have hated it, nobody remembers it, and it sank beneath the waves like a croc with a concrete tail). Boris Karloff played Captain Hook! And yet for five decades it’s been almost completely forgotten.

The Bard SummerScape mission includes rescuing such odd objets and putting them in glamorous high-end vitrines. (Even the dustiest old find can look elegant when the superb designer Marsha Ginsberg has done the set.) The Bard producers have asked Garth Edwin Sunderland at the Leonard Bernstein Office to reshape the symphonic score for a six-person chamber ensemble — making it temptingly tourable — and the musical result is bright as a gin fizz. It can, however, even in a swift ninety-minute version, feel a bit like drinking too many gin fizzes. The songs have always been half-wonderful (the torchy “Who Am I?”), half-bad (the saccharine “My House”); the instrumental score is so unrelentingly swingy, it can turn heartless. The Bernstein sound just naturally ages everything up, which doesn’t sit that comfortably with Barrie’s Edwardian children-are-dirty-angels style of whimsy.

Director Christopher Alden has steered into this disconnect. His production — impressive and assured and not always pleasant — gives Pan the Germanic theater treatment, setting it under harsh fluorescent lights and a haze of intentional bad feeling. Alden eagerly burrows down to find the “squick” factor in Barrie, to look at the underside of the rock where the creepy-crawlies are. The original project was meant for children, but this version is deliberately and consistently frightening. Ginsberg’s set consists of a bile-yellow floor and walls, with an entire creaking fairground ride — a metal shark “flying” number rescued from the Fifties — looming under a pile of industrial plastic. The pirates wear black balaclavas and jump to their deaths. Nana is a statue of a yellow lab, who gets dragged around in a wheelie suitcase. Nothing here is huggable or light or sweet.

Alden has been a local hero since his staging of A Quiet Place at New York City Opera, an elegant production that found its poetry in static stage compositions and an atmosphere of icy resignation. He’s less successful at dealing with mania and movement, and there are some touches here that edge into cliché. For the song “Neverland,” he puts the five-person chorus in giant plushy animal heads — a move from page one of the Euro-theater rulebook. He does cast beautifully, though, choosing the slinky choreographer Jack Ferver as Tinkerbell (who shows up wearing a disco ball on his head), the shock-cabaret sensation Erin Markey as Wendy, the powerhouse William Michals as Captain Hook (doubling as a very disturbed Mr. Darling), and the bleach-blond, genderqueer comedian Peter Smith as Pan.

Barrie’s uncomfortable quasi-romance — Wendy wants a kiss, Peter wants a mom — has been amplified by Bernstein’s lyrics: Wendy sings the frankly erotic song “Peter, Peter,” which is full of the naked yearning to get her hands all over him. In this production, Alden’s casting choices create their own wild sexual vibe, which throbs underneath nearly every scene. Markey, spinning their ponytail like a lasso, delivers lines with an initial, guttural moan. Wendy just has to say, “…Oh, Peter,” and half the audience looks around for the vice squad. Smith’s Pan, wearing Chelsea boots andasnug Seventies-era T-shirt, enters the stage as a vaguely predatory presence — a lanky, clearly adult figure lurking on the carnival ride as children play nearby. And in this version, Captain Hook keeps falling into his other persona as the troubled Mr. Darling. Which man dances close with Wendy and ties her to a chair? Either option is disturbing.

But you don’t need to strip Peter Pan to its gears to find its melancholy and unease. The piece has always been about how dangerous “pretend” can be: Play at being a mother, and your beloved might wind up seeing you that way; play at being a pirate, and you risk being cast adrift from your family forever. Bodies teeter on thresholds and even the adults (especially the adults) yearn to slip out of the window and into an earlier self. This may be why I wound up admiring the production rather than loving it; Alden’s grim-dark, Freudian vision of Pan seems like an over-elaboration, a statement of the obvious rather than a refreshing new look. Yet I’m still grateful for the chance to see Markey playing a violent and capable Wendy, who shoots at birds, strips the feathers off a duck, and prowls the audience with a flashlight. All these idiots who don’t want to grow up? This Wendy doesn’t have the time. The crocodile is ticking, dawn is coming, and someone’s got to make a kill before breakfast.

Peter Pan
Bard College, Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
60 Manor Avenue, Annandale-On-Hudson
Through July 22