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"Peter Pan"

by Donald Munro
he Fresno Bee, December 14, 2009

Musical Theaterworks Fresno and director Jeff White have a lot to crow about with the company's much-improved production of "Peter Pan," which has returned for a second year of December performances at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium. (It continues Thursday-Saturday.)

The production has been streamlined and tightened, particularly the first act, which last year threatened to send the audience to Snoozeland instead of Neverland. The acting is more nimble. And the dancing, which last year was noticeably weak, is much improved.

Best of all, this "Peter Pan" avoids much of the "old chestnut" sensibility of last year's version. This one seems fresher. Perhaps it's the vitality of the performances or the coy ways that White plays with gender roles.

Nate Butler as Captain James Hook.

Another thing about this "Peter Pan": Of the two alternating performers portraying Peter, one is male. That's very much against theater tradition. An adult woman playing the man-boy role in androgynous style is the norm. (Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan are the most famous Peter Pans.) At the Fresno performance I saw Saturday night, Tony Thammavongsa, a Children's Musical Theaterworks veteran, played Peter. (He shares the role with Sonya Venugopal.)

It really was a shock at first seeing Thammavongsa fly through the window for the first time. I've become so accustomed over the years to a woman playing the role that it took me a few minutes to adjust to a man in the role. But in the end, I really liked the "reverse" gender bending that came with Thammavongsa's casting.

For one thing, it put a new spin on the awakening-sexuality theme running through J.M. Barrie's story. Consider: Wendy, the oldest Darling daughter and the one selected by Peter to be "mother" to his gang of Lost Boys in Neverland, is interested in being more than friends with him. With her request for physical affection -- a hug, a kiss -- and insistence that he play "father" to his "mother," there's a coming-of-age quality to the tale that gets a slightly edgier reading with a male playing Peter. No tarted-up revisions here, mind you, but a little more human.

"I Gotta Crow!"
Tony Thammavongsa as Peter Pan and Jilliane Osborne as Wendy Darling.
White throws in other gender variations as well. Girls play some of the guys in the Lost Boys group, several women are part of Captain Hook's pirates, and Tiger Lily's Indians are all female. It's a gender mish-mash all around, and it works.

As Peter, Thammavongsa gives a strong performance, capturing both the endearing and comic elements of his character. Singing in falsetto and capitalizing on his slim build, he plays the role in as androgynous a manner as a Mary Martin-type, and the fact that he's an adult is important in terms of the man-boy aspect of the character. Thammavongsa brings such a gentle fervor to the stage that he likely makes believers even out of naysaying traditionalists in the audience.

(Incidentally, Musical Theaterworks Fresno is the community-theater arm of Children's Musical Theaterworks. Not everyone who auditioned was cast, and it includes children and adults.)

Nate Butler returns as Capt. Hook, and he's even better than last year: growly, funny, just a big old ruffian. Ben McNamara has some fine moments as Hook's lieutenant, Smee, and Kalina Venugopal sparks things up with her fine Tiger Lily. Many of the smaller roles -- for example, Brandon Delsid's character of Slightly -- stand out with robust energy.

In terms of the look and pacing of the show, it really flies compared to last year's version, with the first act much more fluid and White's massive set changes better coordinated. Laura Vogt's lighting design works well and Kirsten Peters-McGrath's costumes are nice. Kaye Migaki's choreography shines, from "Hook's Tango" and "Indian Dance" to the always popular "Ugh-A-Wug."

The result is a great family show that moves fast enough for most little ones. It had me thinking much lovelier thoughts than last year.

"Hook's Tango"
The Lost Boys unite with the Indians.
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