What I learned. . .

Peter Pan is a bitch.  That’s what I learned, though not for the first time.

I have sworn for some time that directors shouldn’t be allowed to direct professionally until they’ve tackled Act II, Scene 3 of Peter Pan – in either its play form or musical adaptation.  Not only do you have an underground home to set up, you’ve got Lost Boys cleaning up, Wendy reading stories to the Boys as they await Peter’s arrival home, the return of Peter with Tiger Lily and her warriors (and in the musical you’ve got the egregiously titled “Ugg-A-Wug” dance number, rife with its racist, Native American clichés); you’ve got Warriors being routed by Pirates, Pirates capturing and kidnapping Lost Boys, Captain Hook poisoning Peter’s medicine, Tinkerbell drinking Peter’s medicine and nearly dying, Peter reviving the dying Tink (with the audience’s help), and then his eleventh hour exit to rescue Wendy, her brothers, and the Lost Boys.  All within a minimal number of pages, supported by very little dialogue.  It’s a challenge of precise and careful storytelling in which each step needs to be highlighted so the audience doesn’t get lost or confused or given the chance to simply check out.  I was very grateful that this was my fourth outing with the material (my third with the musical).  Experience and forehand knowledge really, really helped.

In many ways, directing Peter Pan requires you to summon everything you know about craft.  There is little internally developed scene work, except for the extended scene in Act I, when Peter arrives in the Darling’s nursery, encounters Wendy, and invites her to fly with him to Neverland. After that, it is in many ways, a series of events requiring careful planning on the part of a director and his or her designers.  How can you keep the action moving seamlessly as it travels from Victorian England to a magical island inhabited by animals, Lost Boys, Pirates, and Warriors, where time and season are very elusive, and where major locales change with alarming frequency?

Fortunately, the group of collaborators Tim Bond, Syracuse Stage’s outgoing Artistic Director assembled for our production proved up to the task.  I hadn’t worked before with Linda Buchanan, a Chicago-based set designer, but we seemed to hit it off instantly and I found her endlessly imaginative solutions  ingenious and supportive.  Susan Branch Towne and Lonnie Alcaraz, both of whom are frequent collaborators, took on the costume and lighting designs, respectively; Jonathan Horner handled the sound design while Syracuse University faculty members Brian Cimmet and Tony Salatino assumed musical direction and choreographic duties.  

We assembled a wonderful cast, including Donald Corren (Captain Hook/Mr. Darling), who I had known since he was a high school student in Stockton, California, but with whom I had never worked; Kraig Swartz (Smee), who I’ve also known since his high school days (and who I had directed in two previous productions); and Christine Toy Johnson (Mrs. Darling), with whom I was working for the first time.  The rest of the cast was comprised of a large group of gifted and hard-working students from the acclaimed musical theatre training program at Syracuse University, including seniors Troy Hussmann, Dephi Borich, and Ana Marcu, who played Peter, Wendy, and Tiger Lily, respectively.  Together I think we managed to conquer the Everest that is Peter Pan, the musical.

From the start Tim was forthright regarding his reservations about the material, having found it exclusionary and racist as a boy.  It took him many years to feel comfortable about mounting a production of the play, and I was honored that he thought of me as the right director to help shepherd the production from vision to reality.  Several decisions made this a different Peter Pan, beginning with the casting of Troy, a graduating senior in the title role (often played by a female), but further extending to the women warriors who comprised Tiger Lily’s Troupe.  We were able to do some simple but significant rewriting of lyrics in the “Ugg-a-wug” song (re-titling it for our production , “Warrior Song”). . .  fortunately, the name “Peter Pan” scans exactly with “ugg-a-wug,” which gave me a solid starting point for alterations.  Working with Kyle Bass, the Stage’s resident dramaturg, we did our best to expurgate nonsense lyrics and anything that played to Native American clichés and stereotypes.  Similarly, Susan and I explored a host of images for inspiration for the ‘look’ of Tiger Lily’s troupe, and based those specific costumes more in the world of Tolkien than in Disney or Rackham and other of Peter Pan’s original illustrators.  I believe our efforts succeeded and that we honored the original intent of the story while bringing fresh ideas to the table.

Our casting of an Amer-Asian actress as Wendy led us to the casting of Christine Toy Johnson, also Amer-Asian, as Mrs. Darling which gave the production even greater texture and dimension. I will never forget and always be grateful to Christine for thanking me, shortly after we met at her first rehearsal, for casting a production that “looked like the world in which we live.”  In Tiger Lily’s words: enough said.

So much of a director’s work on any production of Peter Pan is determined by the need to fly five different characters to and from Neverland, and we were blessed by the decision to hire theatrical flying and effects specialists, ZFX, to be with us for all flying and technical rehearsals.  Our flight director was patient and knowing; he paced rehearsals brilliantly, and taught backstage crew, stage managers, and actors alike with consummate precision, humor, and clarity. When he sensed that Seamus Gailor, the young actor playing Michael Darling, was getting increasingly nervous as his time to go aloft for the first time approached, he took him aside, led him backstage, introduced him to all of the crew and demonstrated for Seamus exactly what would be happening before asking him to take his first exciting, albeit brief , flight.  As a result, the flying was always safe and every bit as spectacular as hoped for.  (And, I’m happy to report, Seamus took to the London and Neverland skies with relish once he conquered his early apprenhensions.)

Peter Pan is a magical and rewarding piece of theatre in spite of its endless challenges.  As I kept reminding the cast, many young people would not just be experiencing the story for the very first time, they would be experiencing their first live theatre production.  For those reasons alone the effort that went into what turned out to be an immensely successful production were worth all of the pains taken to create Barrie’s world and to honor his vision.  Lives were changed, and none were lost. 

Peter Pan

Syracuse Stage

November, 2015

Donald Corren, Kraig Swartz

“With some 34 characters including Peter’s band of Lost Boys, Captain Hook and his quasi-threatening group of scalawags, Tiger Lily’s Troupe of female warriors, in addition to Peter and the Darling family, director Paul Barnes and choreographer/fight director Anthony Salatino might have donned cop uniforms, replete with nightsticks and whistles, to direct this heavy stage traffic.  Judging from the results of Friday’s opener, their efforts were obvious with a performance of the clockwork precision of a Broadway production.

“. . . one of the facets that makes this production more ‘real’ is the casting of Troy Hussmann, as Peter.  In addition, it gives more cadence to Peter being the leader of a band of Lost Boys, and to the intimated, flirtatious relationship that develops between him and Wendy Darling (Delphi Borich), the oldest of the Darling children. . .

“Scenic designer Linda Buchanan’s synchronized set operations, alone, from windows opening, to the sliding back wall transforming into the open night sky with four actors held aloft, is testament to the sophistication of this production.

“Troy Hussmann brings not only a celebrated boyishness and athleticism to the role of Peter, but also a very considerable vocal ability as demonstrated in several numbers both with feet planted on the stage and while harnessed in flight.  If the character of Peter Pan is partially a messenger of joy, Hussmann certainly filled the theater with it on opening night.

“Despite the show’s title, the actor’s plum role has always been that of Captain Hook, and Equity actor Donald Corren, who transforms himself from proper, officious father, Mr. Darling, to a pampered, somewhat gender-bent “evil” pirate, is nothing short of mesmerizing as he struts about in sartorial finery, barking orders, and delivering, with delicious pronunciation, some of his finer verbal ironies.

“Other performances of note came from Delphi Borich (Wendy) who was able to dial the years back a bit to create a believable Wendy, both visually and audibly, and Ana Marcu, whose sexually-infused Tiger Lily, the leader of the female warriors, conveyed a joyfulness and determination in movement as her warriors united with Peter’s Lost Boys to defeat Hook and his band.

“There isn’t a wasted moment in this production . . .

“. . . make no mistake, this is no production strictly for children.  This has all the elements you expect from a professionally directed, choreographed, produced, and performed production.  In that regard, this is ‘adult theater’ fare.”

     Tony Curulla

Peter Pan brings a delightful amount of fun to Syracuse Stage with just a sprinkling of fairy dust.  Based on the novel by J.M. Barrie, and directed by Paul Barnes in co-production with Syracuse University Drama Department, this production combines high thrill with magic and wonder.

“. . . soon the audience is transported into a make-believe world filled with incredible wonders.

“The set is transformed into a vibrant world adorned with colorful streamers, lights, glitter and complete with actors playing exotic animals that parade through the aisles.

“Peter, played by Syracuse University senior Troy Hussmann, brings a boyish, playful charm to the role which is usually played by a woman.  In contrast Wendy, played by senior Delphi Borich, portrays the proper precociousness of a well-bred girl.

“Although there is a lot of color and magic on display, this production is no Disney cartoon.  Like the original Peter Pan, the play explores the darker, cruder elements of the classic tale.  An arrow through Wendy’s heart, the poisoning of Tinker Bell and Wendy’s romantic desire for Peter are just some of the plot points that explore the darker undertones of this child’s tale.”

     Genelle Levy

“Peter Pan soared as audiences were treated to an exhilarating interpretation of the story about a boy who never grows up.  Success of Peter Pan as a play depends on the ability to convey the belief that just for a short time the idea of never maturing beyond youth.  Complete with the innocence of a child believing in things magical.  This production manages to keep the message and fantasy of the play intact while creatively deleting the original stereotypical depiction of Native Americans as savages.

“Warrior Women replace the reductive nature of previous interpretations and casting a male in the lead role breathes new life into the story.

“ . . .  a production not to be missed.”

     Ken Jackson

“This month, Syracuse Stage and Syracuse University Drama present a co-production of a remarkable musical rendition about Peter Pan, and the people who love, and who he fails to love in return due to his commitment to remaining as a kid.

“Syracuse Stage not only ups the quality on set design by Linda Buchanan, but Director Paul Barnes decides to do something many Peter Pan renditions haven’t: have a male play the titular role.  With Barnes’ casting, the audience is offered another level of authenticity that even some of the best actresses might not have been able to portray.  Moreover, it lets the audience see a glimpse of the sexual attraction that’s usually one-sided between Peter and Wendy.

“Senior musical theatre major Troy Hussmann does a commendable job in portraying Peter Pan.  He captures the rambunctiousness, melancholy and adventurous spirit that’s essential to the Peter Pan character.

“It’s in Neverland where we meet a cocky, yet mildly self-loathing Captain Hook (played by Donald Corren, who also plays Mr. Darling) and his merry men.  Each scene with Hook and his blind followers is full of laughs, great comedic execution of timing and choreography.  This crew is pathetic, but hilariously so, and well-acted.

“We also meet another casting shake-up by the brilliant Barnes: the casting of Tiger Lily as a speaking character leading a group of warrior women.  With this casting, Barnes seeks to make this adaptation of Peter Pan’s story more accepting and less racially offensive as its source material.

“ . . . senior theatre major Ana Marcu portrays Tiger Lily with dignity and honor.  She is fierce, fun, smart . . .

“If you want a Broadway experience, just travel down the road to the Neverland that the Syracuse Stage artfully built.”

     Lateshia D. Beachum

Peter Pan, now running at Syracuse Stage is the perfect holiday show for the entire family.

“You cannot help but love this production of Peter Pan, it is wildly infectious.  All creative elements are superb, including the functional but beautiful set design, the whimsical costumes, the brilliant choreography, the magical lighting design and the effusive energy that sails out and over into every audience member.  Big fun!

“Director Paul Barnes manages this huge ensemble effortlessly, he must have nerves of steel and the patience of a saint; not to mention oodles of talent.”