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Review: Leonard Bernstein's 'Peter Pan' at Lobero Theatre

December 22, 2008 |  3:30 pm

Peter_pan To treat the Santa Barbara Theatre revival of J.M. Barrie’s beloved 1904 “Peter Pan,” which opened Friday night for a short holiday run in Lobero Theatre, as a coup might seem a little strange.  But when announced as Leonard Bernstein’s “Peter Pan” -- the first American revival of a Broadway version with five songs, two choruses and incidental music by Bernstein -- the show becomes the coup no one else wanted.

Bernstein’s score is not altogether obscure.  “Build My House,” “Dream With Me” and “Who Am I?” are classics in the Bernstein songbook.  The 1950 show, which starred Jean Arthur as Peter and Boris Karloff as Captain Hook -- was a hit, running 321 performances. A cast album was released.

But with the success of the Disney animated film in 1953 and a big Broadway musical version the following year, “Peter Pan” became a blip in the Bernstein biography.  Still, it remained close to Bernstein’s heart to the end of his life.  “Who Am I?” is, in fact, the Bernstein question, asked in all his ages of anxiety.

The enjoyable Santa Barbara production hardly answers anything quite so existential, but it does reveal why, even in this Bernstein year, which included a massive 90th birthday festival in New York, “Peter Pan” has remained obscure and why that’s a mistake.

Wendy_and_peter_pan_2 The show is a lot of trouble to mount.  It includes a cast of 43 characters (with possibilities for some doubling). Special effects are a good idea. The music is meant to sound simple without being simple.  A competent pit band, with excellent percussion, is essential.

On top of that, Bernstein’s score is often oddly irrelevant.  Contracted only for incidental music, the composer said he lost his head over “Peter” and surprised the producers with the songs and choruses, for which he wrote his own lyrics. But he wrote only what he wanted. He gave Peter nothing to sing. The three great songs are all for Wendy and not particularly pertinent. Bernstein did not stick around New York for the show, leaving many details up to others, including Marc Blitzstein.

The incidental music, moreover, was clearly tossed off, and probably the songs as well.  But as such, the score provides a snapshot into all the different things jumbled together in Bernstein’s music mind in late 1949, when he spent a couple of weeks in Florida doing the tossing off.   

Tinker Bell’s percussive music, for instance, shows an unusual influence of Messiaen. Bernstein had just conducted the world premiere of the “Turangalîla” Symphony, and he was briefly besotted with the mysticism, nature music and eroticism of the symphony. Clearly Bach’s Third “Brandenburg Concerto” was floating through Bernstein’s brain, and some of it got into a pirate chorus.  Lenny the trickster is also evident in his fugal games.

The Santa Barbara production, directed by Albert Ihde, is a labor of love on a lot of levels, and as with many such labors, the good stuff is irresistible and the amateurish parts are easily overlooked.  The score was laboriously assembled from dusty archival material by Alexander Frey, the production’s conductor who also made the first recording of the complete score three years ago.

The text was adapted from Barrie's novel and play by Ihde and Stephanie Sinclaire into a long, literate children’s show that did an impressive job of holding a young audience for 2½ hours. I’m not sure the completist approach is necessary, though –- a mermaid’s scene is a historical curiosity, but it looked here much more trouble than it’s worth.

Next to Bernstein music, Corina Boettger’s charismatic Peter is the production’s biggest attraction.  The 18-year-old actress’ youthful confidence, underscored by inner doubt, made Peter such a Bernsteinian figure that it becomes no wonder that the composer decided to palm off his psychological preoccupations on Wendy instead. Sarah Bierstock was two Wendys, one the young girl who flies off with Peter, the other who breaks away to awkwardly sing her songs as if arias to the audience.

Carolyn Hennesy was a proper narrator and a proper Mrs. Darling, Wendy’s mother. Robert Yacko was the winning foppish Mr. Darling and slapstick Captain Hook.  Barrie’s play offers roles aplenty for children, and they filled the stage, well prepared and pleasantly formal in their delivery. There are, of course, scads of merry pirates, Indians and those mermaids. The flying was fun and well done. The choreography more or less worked. Gary Wissman’s sets represented an old-fashioned children’s world.

And old-fashioned is just where the production needed to remain. Where it got into trouble was with amplification, which pretty much ruined the musical numbers. Pull the plug, and I’ll bet the cast could rise to the occasion.

But stray electrons aside, this “Peter Pan” warmly and significantly fills in what is presumably the only musical gap in the best documented career in classical music.  How could we have been so foolish to have thought that any aspect of Bernstein’s output is worth ignoring?

-- Mark Swed

"Peter Pan," Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. 2 and 7 p.m. today, Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Friday. Ends Dec. 28. $45-$70 (ages 5 to 18, $32.50). (805) 963-0761. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Top photo: Corina Boettger as Peter Pan. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times. Lower photo: Sarah Bierstock as Wendy, with Corina Boettger as Peter Pan. Credit: David Bazemore