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.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.