Opinion: ‘Peter Pan’ Is a Perfect First

The theater was packed for the Sunday matinee
Jayne Freedman, surrounded by pirates, including Josh Gladstone’s Captain Hook (far right), plays Peter Pan in the Springs Community Theater production tomorrow and Saturday at Guild Hall. Durell Godfrey

   First love and first time at the theater should be joyful experiences, and when artfully combined, as in the Springs Community Theater production of “Peter Pan” at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater, they are simply a blast.
    The theater was packed for the Sunday matinee, and the energy of the little ones in the audience, with an occasional mommy or daddy thrown in, was palpable at the curtain.
    For many of those in the house — and some of those on the stage, as well — “Peter Pan” would be their first experience of live theater. Would that the rest of their firsts be as joyful as this one.
    Based on the play by Scottish writer Sir James Matthew Barrie, which was itself based on the novel by Sir Barrie, “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” the musical in its current form was put together by Jerome Robbins, director and choreographer of the 1954 Broadway production, starring Mary Martin in the title role.
To give us the show we have today, the work of the initial composer and lyricist team, Mark Charlap and Carolyn Leigh, was augmented with songs by the brilliant team of Jule Styne, the composer, and the lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
The Springs Community Theater production of the play stars Jayne Freedman in the title role and was produced by Barbara Mattson. Ms. Freedman said in a recent interview that she’d always wanted to play the role, and the audience can see why as she joyfully sings and dances her way through the show. She has a fine belt voice, which she displays whether planted on terra firma or flying through the air.
    Speaking of flying, the “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience when Peter Pan first enters and when the Darling family children, Wendy (Paula Guerra), John (Dylan Andrada), and Michael (Colin Freedman), first fly through the air made the theater vibrate with happiness.
    The Darling children are just that. Ms. Guerra’s Wendy is a shy one, but charmingly so. Wendy is on the verge of first love, of kissing and wanting to be kissed by a boy. She is just a breath away from that point. It is a breath that Peter will not give her, for to do so would mean growing up and having to wear a tie.
    Co-starring as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook is the always-funny Josh Gladstone. He had the children in the audience booing and hissing him on every gleefully evil entrance. I was laughing so hard, I was afraid I might roll into the improvised orchestra pit, to my right in the house of the John Drew. Mr. Gladstone may have left a bite mark or two on the scenery, but what the heck, he runs the place and knows what these things cost.
    Actually, he is to be commended twice, once for his performance and again in his role as artistic director of the John Drew, for his foresight in bringing Springs Community Theater into the space.
    For your first time in the audience of a musical or, more important, your first time performing onstage in a musical, to be in such a beautiful theater as this, is awesome.
    This production accomplishes something many loftier productions often fail to do — connect the audience to the players and vice versa. It puts the “community” in community theater.
    Community theater should not be confused with amateur theater, as this production attests, not when you have strong professional elements supporting the players.
    One of those elements is Flying by Foy, the company that makes all this flying not only possible, but fun.
    The company was founded by Peter Foy, who rigged and ran the flying apparatus for the original “Peter Pan” on Broadway, and it sets the standard for flying performers, whether in a community theater production or at the Super Bowl. When you see a performer fly onto the stage at a concert, in all probability, Flying by Foy is in the wings.
    The musical direction by Max Feldschuh of the three-man orchestra, which included Mr. Feldschuh on keyboard, Stuart Feldschuh on bass, and Michael Bennett on drums, was excellent.
    Some of the young actors on stage are new to all this, but with more seasoned performers in key roles, the production flows nicely, a credit to the co-directors, Ms. Freedman and Diana Horn.
    Anita Boyer, who is credited as co-choreographer with Ms. Freedman, gives us a hoofing Tiger Lily. She skillfully hits metal to wood, giving many in the audience another “first time” experience — tap dancing.
    She holds down the stage with her troop of Indians (doubt this would have been written in 2013!) during the scene change from the children’s bedroom to Neverland, and her percussive sounds captured the audience.
    One of her troupe, Riley Goldstein, brings a grace and beauty to the stage as she does a “bird dance.”
    Michael Horn’s Smee would hold its own in any production of “Peter Pan,” and his fellow band of pirates are wonderfully wicked.
    The band of Lost Boys is delightful, with Yori Johnson’s Slightly giving a good, strong balance to his higher-pitched playmates, both physically and musically.
    Colin Freedman does a wonderful duet at the end of “The Crow Reprise” with Ms. Freedman, his mother in real life. As in much of the show, the reprise involves the audience, one of the examples of why this show is an excellent first experience of live theater. Theater isn’t a TV or a movie screen or a tablet the viewer is looking at, it is real people. Theater works because the audience and the players want it to work.
    Peter Pan’s challenge to the audience, that the only way to save Tinker Bell’s life is if they all truly believe, is the challenge all plays put to their audiences.
    When a character dies on stage, we in the audience understand that the person playing the character hasn’t really died, yet we suspend that disbelief, and allow ourselves to accept what we see as if it were truth. The relationship between audience and players is learned through experience.
    The little girl behind me turned to her mother early in the show and asked about Peter Pan, “Mom, is that a girl?”
    The answer is, “Yes, that is a girl, and it is Peter Pan.”
    A good first-time lesson.
    There will be two more“Peter Pan” shows, tomorrow and Saturday, both at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for those under 18.