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I do believe in fairies: Bill Bowers as Tinker Bell in BTF’s Peter Pan.

Flight of the Inner Child
By Ralph Hammann

Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up
Adapted from J.M. Barrie by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, directed by Eric Hill

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 30

The Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Peter Pan is a production that adults should see for their own benefit as well as that of their progeny. To be aware of this show and not take even a barely deserving child would be tantamount to negligence bordering on child abuse. Directed by that Napoleon of creativity, Eric Hill, it is a fabulous flight of imagination that never subsides. Hill’s vigorous staging invites viewers to collaborate with actors and designers in bringing exquisite life to the remote worlds of Victorian England’s Bloomsbury and the Neverland.

The journey is lovely, comical and touching in a manner that is both sentimental and rueful. One enters Neverland at some risk, if one is an adult. As author J.M. Barrie noted, adults can never land on its remote shores; children are really the only successful travelers there. And while adults can get there through children (inner children included, I would argue) we can only be the most transient of visitors. The visit is perilous in that it leaves us yearning for the impossible. It is a sentimental return and a rueful contemplation.

In their knowing adaptation, Caird and Nunn have pored over various versions and revisions of the play, also appropriating material from the novel. Most enjoyably, they have taken the stage directions from Barrie’s original and made them part of the dialogue that functions as narration. The result is a direct ear to Barrie’s own voice; it is also the conduit that most successfully carries us into the play and brings us into contact with our lost childhoods.

In Hill’s production, that narration is spoken by a Barriesque character, the Storyteller, who soon transforms into the fairy, Tinker Bell. The sight of Tinker Bell played by a smallish, mustachioed man in a white suit makes for one of the greatest joys of this production and one of the gayest of fairies to ever flit across the stage. In this double role of Tinker Bell/Storyteller, Bill Bowers is a revelation. Armed only with mirrors, a variety of hand bells and his nimble body articulation and fey facial expressions, Bowers redefines Tinker Bell and conjures magic. That the children in the audience so earnestly clap their hands to bring this Tinker Bell back to life attests to the concept’s effectiveness in a subtly promoting tolerance to the young and pure and untainted by adult lessons in prejudice.

Kate Maguire is a gracious Mrs. Darling and handily manages to suggest the traces of conflict that underlie her warm, inviting smile. As her eldest child, Tara Franklin beautifully captures Wendy’s maternal relationship with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys while gently conveying her unfulfilled romantic yearnings. Romance aside, the sweetness of her and Peter’s affections for each other is at the heart of the production, and their exchange of kisses, or thimbles, is a small but momentous moment.

Injecting a bit more adult sensitivity or sexuality into the department of unfulfilled desires, striking Erin Gorski impressively smolders as Tiger Lily, while E. Gray Simons III is the Neverland’s most sublimely daft dweller. As Michael, the protean Justina Trova proves one of the show’s most transporting embodiments of youth, a sort of über-child. Trova is a vortex, instantly drawing us into Barrie’s whimsy and wide-eyed adventure.

The perennially entertaining Walter Hudson is a divinely humorous Captain Hook, both manly and mincing in his cascading cuffs and ostentatious doublet. Doubling as Mr. Darling, he is doubly funny, but his greatest achievement both as Hook and Darling is to honor Barrie’s command that all the characters wear a child’s outlook on life.

But it would all be for naught without a Peter Pan. She has to compete with many Pans before her, but Isadora Wolfe wins one over completely as the definitive boy who would not grow up. Without aid of special effects, Wolfe flies into the role with boyish confidence, an accomplished dancer’s athletic grace, Puckish charm and enough pure pluck to seduce us all to Neverland. Never has the cross-gender casting of the rather androgynous role worked so well as with this radiant young woman.

And, yes, she (and the three Darling children) fly for a few lovely moments on the requisite wires, but the mechanical effect pales beside her majestic leaps, which (unlike so many ballerinas’) maintain their air aspect as Wolfe soundlessly lands poised for her next deft movement. Sorcery.

Sex, Lies and Vicomtes

The Game
Based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Chonderlos de Laclos, book and lyrics by Amy Powers and David Topchik, music by Megan Cavallari, directed by Julianne Boyd, musical direction by Michael Morris, choreography by Jan Leys

Barrington Stage Company, Consolalti Performing Arts Center, Sheffield, Mass., through Aug. 23

Occasionally as a theater critic I see a production so good, so rich, so well-crafted that I want to jump up and down and scream, “Go see this, go see this, go see this.” Consider this a jump and a scream for Barrington Stage’s latest production. The Game is theatrical perfection. A Sondheimesque musical version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, this new musical features performances that make humans out of social monsters, finds humor in plot and characters that have been humorless in other versions, and fills the stage with sparkling songs, dazzling costumes, and beautiful images against the twilight-blue cyclorama. The Game is like a boudoir filled with erotic Wedgwood singing. Every summer there is a show that is a must-see, and The Game is it.

This is a rare treat: a musical whose sound system and orchestra support the singers, not overwhelm them. Telling the 18th- century tale of the bored decadence of the French aristocrats Madame de Merteuil (the voluptuous Sara Ramirez) and Vicomte de Valmont (the virile Christopher Innvar, looking like a young Timothy Dalton), The Game traces the sportive manipulations and couplings of the duo as they debauch the devout Madame de Tourvel (an angelic Heather Ayers), and the innocent young lovers Cecile (Cristen Boyle, whose comedic charms rival her vocal prowess) and Danceny (Greg Mills, with the grace and charm of a young Tim Curry). Like manicured fingernails raked along bare thighs, the songs and actions of The Game can be captivating, thrilling—and painful.

The 21 songs of the musical all reflect the eroticism and manipulation of the characters, as well as the opulence of the setting. The Game has echoes of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, though with more tumidity and licentiousness. There are thrilling moments, as with “The Music Lesson” or “Until Then,” when three characters sing the same melody but with different lyrics, each striving to convey the need wrapped within the manipulation of another. The Act I closer, “Wanting Her More,” a solo lament by Merteuil for Valmont that turns into an oath for vengeance, cleverly twists the meaning of a word that is further twisted when Valmont reprises the song in Act II.

The book by Amy Powers and David Topchik preserves the novel’s epistolary nature and bridges scenes by having characters reading letters aloud in asides to the audience that further reveal the motivations behind the amorous machinations. The Game keeps the audience breathless with anticipation: You giggle at the giddiness of Cecile’s and Danceny’s innocent love, laugh at the duo’s hands-on practicum from master teachers Valmont and Merteuil, and shudder when Merteuil sighs in revelation to Valmont, “Revenge? No, cruelty, I think, is always a more pleasurable motivation.”

The stagecraft aids the excellence of The Game. Set pieces are flown or wheeled on, making the play’s pace brisk, the stage pictures sharp, opulent, and engaging. The costuming by Fabio Toblini is a flutter of décolletage and satin, three-foot pannier skirts that emphasize the movement of the hips (a vital playing field for The Game). The musical even includes the most stirring swordfight of the summer, a rapier duel between Valmont and Danceny that is as stirring, visually engaging, and revealing as the rest of the excellent production. See it.

—James Yeara

Revision Impaired

Mark Twain’s The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
Book adapted by Eric Peterson, Music and Lyrics by Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen, directed by Eric Peterson

Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington, Vt., through Sept. 7

In Mark Twain’s short story “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” the title character remains an enigma. There is no such safe hiding place for author Eric Peterson, who has the dubious distinction of being the man who corrupted “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.” Corrupting the sharp story into a piece of musical fluff that has no reason to exist, Peterson is abetted in his literary besmirchment by the team of Gillette and Mangsen, who have contributed dull music and mangy lyrics. Ensuring that their wrongheaded vision would be given a faithful production, Peterson has also directed, although given the sterility of this production, I am not sure what that means.

Twain’s short story concerns a small town that has built a reputation on its claims of incorruptibility, but the truth is that beneath the civil façade the citizens are a greedy, self-serving lot. They are turned against each other, exposed and publicly humiliated by a stranger, in absentia, who wants revenge for an undisclosed wrong done him in Hadleyburg. Twain devises a somewhat complex means of exacting the revenge in a series of plot developments that are clear in the short story and difficult to follow in Peterson’s adaptation.

The original story exists as a satire of vanity, a rather ruthless exposé of the hypocrisy of sinners that recalls Hawthorne’s morality tale “Young Goodman Brown” and the Carl Forman-Fred Zinnemann classic set in Hadleyville, High Noon.

The Oldcastle production does not suggest an entire town in either its meager cast or setting, which has as its main focus a partial representation of a gazebo that contains a grand piano. Placed up-center, it becomes a distracting image that lacks impact and meaning. Matters are worsened by placing the show’s accompanist (and musical director), Jack Aaronson, there as a constant backdrop to the action—or inaction, as the case may be. As the music is of little consequence and as Aaronson periodically has trouble sitting still, he and the music would be better heard than seen. Although I would happily have foregone hearing the music and the chorus of candy wrappers that frequently joined it.

While Peterson has retained Twain’s major characters, he has added two new ones with disastrous results. In Peterson’s version, the stranger exacting the revenge is Johnny, the strapping son of the man who was originally affronted years ago. Peterson has also created Abigail, who becomes Johnny’s love interest and (social) conscience. Thus does a story of comeuppance become an insipid love story.

Johnny is supposed to be a con man (one wonders if the creators were thinking more of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man than Twain), but as played by Billy Taylor he is a bland figure of no intrinsic interest unless one is fascinated by unremitting stolidity. His unflattering high-waisted and high-water pants don’t help. He is matched by Mindy Dougherty’s intermittently nasal Abigail, who is more expressive but too much an annoying Pollyanna to heighten any conflict. Lacking chemistry, both have decent voices but have little of substance to say. Or sing.

Ron Ray’s “choreography/musical staging” offers little to distract from the growing vapidity or augment Peterson’s ostensible staging, which too often puts characters in positions too weak or poorly lit to convey the supposed importance of what they are saying. Elsewhere, Michael Giannitti provides some effective skyscape lighting that unfortunately places a moon near Aaronson, drawing more attention to the unnecessary visual.

Only Nan Mullenneaux and, especially, Doug Ryan, emerge from the dull, unevenly structured proceedings with any sparks representing human life. Mullenneaux brings a cheekiness and freshness to Constance, a schoolteacher who certainly wouldn’t have approved of Peterson’s adaptation. Ryan is a fully spontaneous and engaging narrator who lends a vital sardonic quality that is sorely missing elsewhere. He does his best to keep us involved in this misbegotten act of literary castration. But it is impossible.

—Ralph Hammann


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