Nehal Joshi (left) and Eric Anderson in "Fly" at La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Kevin Berne
La Jolla Playhouse's world-premiere production of "Fly," a musical adaptation of the much-told Peter Pan story, boasts dazzling choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler and Stephanie Klemons), fanciful scenic design (by Anna Louizos), a Wendy to cheer for (Storm Lever) and of course feats of flying that while not exactly taking your breath away still make your eyes pop.
But "Fly" is all about the pirates.
In Rajiv Joseph's book for the show, Captain Hook (Eric Anderson) is not only the funniest character onstage, he's damned near the most sympathetic. I've had a lot of Peter Pan experience in my day, including revisiting the adventures in-depth while an MFA graduate student not that long ago, and I always thought of Hook as an irredeemable meanie. In "Fly," he's hapless and exasperated and -- here's the kicker -- sympathetic. He's already lost one hand, and after Wendy slices off the other, our loyalties are definitely divided. Besides Joseph's characterization, Anderson's portrayal of Hook is comic but complex. His false swagger and empty threats toward Peter are counterbalanced by his personal sad state of affairs, including not having a mother figure. He and his band of "cutthroats" in Neverland covet young Wendy for this role.
What's more, the most memorable numbers in the "Fly" score are those sung by Anderson or with his mates. Their "Howl at the Moon" chantey is surpassed only by Anderson's faux-ballad "I Miss My Hand," in which he gets a little singalong help from Nehal Joshi as Smee (also wonderful in this show).
The remainder of the score (music by Bill Sherman, lyrics by Kirsten Childs and Rajiv Joseph) runs together in sameness, very much overshadowed by the aerobatics, the kinetic dancing and the opulent set pieces (the mobile pirate ship is the best of these, with the Jolly Roger replaced by a Walter Payton No. 34 jersey).
In Joseph's script, Wendy is an only child (unlike in "Peter and Wendy" in which she has younger siblings) and the daughter of a widowed father. Soon after being swept away by Peter (Lincoln Clauss, an adequate leader of the Lost Boys), she becomes a daring warrior princess who faces up with little fear to not only Hook and his band but to Neverland's menacing and hungry Crocodile (Liisi LaFontaine, bringing to mind The Acid Queen from the Ken Russell "Tommy" movie). Storm Lever, who recently appeared on the Playhouse stage in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical," has charisma to spare, and it's obvious that the protagonist of this Peter Pan telling is not Peter, but Wendy.
Nearly flying away with the whole show is Isabelle McCalla as the fairy Tink, swooping in and out of the action, delivering caustic remarks but also evincing the good heart of a Neverland sprite.
Jeffrey Seller, who as a producer has towering credits that include "Hamilton," "In the Heights" and "Rent," directs "Fly" as the spectacle that it is, but doesn't let the underlying story (about growing up) get away from him or his cast. Act Two is when the emotion of "Fly" sweeps through after a rousing but strictly surface-level opening act.
Not surprisingly, the costumes (by Paul Tazewell) are bold, bright and even bodacious -- Hook's coat is really more of a bathrobe. The flying sequences designed by Pichon Baldinu do not attempt to hide the technology that makes them happen, and that in itself is refreshing.
Right about now, Neverland seems like everyone's optimal escape. "Fly" takes you there with pizazz.
"Fly" runs through March 29 in La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre.
The goings-on beneath the white-rabbit hole at Lamb’s Players Theatre are as wildly whimsical as they are proudly nonsensical. In “Alice,” a musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” incongruity is 90 percent of the fun. While the sharpness of Carroll’s satirical sword may be missing from Elizabeth Swados’ 1980 creation for the stage, the fantastical elements and ingenious characters he created are delightfully intact.
This “Alice” is a relatively obscure work, best remembered perhaps for an early-‘80s production that starred Meryl Streep (yes, Meryl Streep) as children’s literature’s most famous heroine. It’s a strictly ensemble piece with all its actors, save the person playing Alice, filling multiple roles. Its musical score is all over the place, from Calypso to doo-wop, from pop-rock to shades of country, from a capella to the kind of jaunty group sings reminiscent of “Godspell.” At Lamb’s, by the way, a five-piece band led by Ian Brandon handles these divergent idioms with aplomb.
Familiarity with Carroll’s books is helpful, but only an appreciation for the unpredictable and a resistance to the need for explanation are required. “Alice” is all about the denizens of Wonderland that Alice (Megan Carmitchel) encounters underground. The strength of the Lamb’s production, directed and choreographed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth, is in those portrayals: Eileen Bowman as the Queen of Hearts and Humpty Dumpty; Geno Carr as Bill the Lizard, the Mock Turtle and a sobbing baby; Brian Mackey as the Mad Hatter; William BJ Robinson as the Cheshire Cat; Angela Chatelain Avila as the White Rabbit.
Also in the sprightly cast are Nancy Snow Carr, Caitie Grady, Jacob Caltrider, Erika Osuna and Fernando Vega, all of them returnees to the Lamb’s stage.
The first act basically mirrors Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the second act the somewhat darker “Through the Looking Glass.” The set and projections by Michael McKeon are evocative of the storybooks, the costuming by Jemima Dutra more subtle than you might expect for an “Alice” production.
A definite highlight is Alice’s duel with the jabberwocky in Act Two, an impressive feat of onstage magic. Less dramatic but entertaining in its own right is the staging of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, with the cup and saucer settings strapped to the backs of actors who hunch over to serve as tables.
To some degree, there’s an anything-goes approach to the festivities that jibes with the bizarro nature of Wonderland, yet it can be wearying, especially when certain sequences (the Mock Turtle/Gryphon bit for one) overstay their welcomes. It helps to remember that one mini-adventure will be followed by another, and another, until the windup when we learn, alas, that it was all a dream.
The “It was all a dream” explanation of childhood fantasies (see “The Wizard of Oz” too) is disappointing when you invest yourself in a completely other world. It’s gratifying, however, that in “Alice” our heroine in the puff-sleeved dress seems to cling to her imagination and its occupants even after she’s awakened by her mother.
Maybe Wonderland is a real place after all.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 3/10/20.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat