Saturday, September 22, 2018
Stage

Review: Freefall's 'Peter Pan' is a lovely vehicle for a timeless story

ST. PETERSBURG — There's a writing axiom students of the craft hear a lot, essentially telling them to "write so that an 8-year-old kid could understand it."

Children have good truth detectors. Some fiction writers run their ideas by kids before they get too invested in a plot. Fail to clear that bar and you might want to take another look.

British playwright J.M. Barrie took that principle a step further. The British playwright told his stories to children, then asked them to repeat back what they heard.

His play, Peter Pan, debuted in 1904. It's been adapted as a 1953 stage musical, and in two subsequent versions on NBC, most recently in 2014. None of those efforts match the purity of intent in Freefall Theatre's Peter Pan, a smarter, smaller play perfect for Freefall's intimate space.

The show is running in repertory with its prequel written a century later. Peter Pan and Peter and the Starcatcher, a crowd favorite last year, run on alternating dates through January with most of the same cast. While both have elements in them to recommend, Peter Pan is the more substantial of the two, an assessment with which Starcatcher's authors would happily agree. This production, directed by Eric Davis, Freefall artistic director, stays true to the genius of the script, albeit with surprises and the occasional wink to adult audiences.

Taylor Simmons plays Peter with the requisite balance of boyish and adult sensibilities, who fights fearlessly yet refuses to come of age. Consequently he cannot have a mature love relationship with Wendy (ably played by Gabriella Guinta), or settle into domestic life. Though Peter Pan and Starcatcher each start with simple dilemmas, they also uncover other worlds populated by fantastic creatures, not all of them human. So these are very much ensemble productions replete with fine actors.

Clinton Harris adds a layer of ferocity as Lean Wolf, one the natives protecting the "lost boys" from the pirates; and John Mark Jernigan pulls duty in both plays as the boatswain Smee, in this case serving Captain Hook. Chris Crawford supplies a big chunk of the show's eloquence and heart, first as Mr. Darling and especially as Hook. And Susan Haldeman makes an admirable Nana, nursemaid for the Darling family, doubling as a ventriloquist for a dummy of a huge family dog.

The most stunning contributions to the show are the original songs by music director Michael Raabe. Marissa Toogood, as Mrs. Darling, sets the tone with a lullaby to put the kids to bed, about being "safe at home." That sets up dreamlike adventures to follow, the stomping skullduggery of pirates, swing-era harmony by mermaids in drag and much more.

Before Wednesday's show started, children in the crowd were invited to move to some empty seats available in the front row. A half-dozen scurried over, none of them taller than 4 feet. Their laughter could be heard throughout, often at unexpected times.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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