DALLAS J.M. Barrie’s boy who wouldn’t grow up, Peter Pan — who first appeared in another story before a play and a novel were devoted to him — has had a lot of traction in the past century. The themes are timeless, but they are captivating audiences more than ever these days as new versions of the story appear in various forms.
The latest musical version, Fly, has its world premiere at the Dallas Theater Center, continuing artistic director Kevin Moriarty’s goal of developing work here for a life in New York and beyond. Fly, at the Wyly Theatre, stands the best chance for commercial success in its post-Dallas life, not because of its well-known story (although that helps) but because it’s a smart adaptation that does many things right. Not least of which is using age-appropriate actors to play Peter, the Darling kids and the Lost Boys. Peter, typically portrayed by an adult woman in Barrie’s play and the most famous musical adaptation from the 1950s, is played by a young male actor this time (the talented Grant Venable).
Directed by Tony-winning producer Jeffrey Seller (Rent) with percussion-heavy music by Bill Sherman and a book by rising playwright Rajiv Joseph, who also co-wrote the lyrics with Kirsten Childs, the most noticeable difference between Fly and the other adaptations is that Neverland is an island inhabited not by American Indians, but by creatures — they’re called “trees,” but they’re the ensemble of singer-dancer-drummers — of African, Afro-Caribbean or Pacific Island origin, with vibrant choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. Leaving this open automatically creates more casting possibilities and erases the American Indian stereotyping.
Tinkerbell becomes Tink (a hilarious Morgan Weed) and is more like Shakespeare’s Puck than the fairy we know from the Disney film; and the Mermaid’s Lagoon becomes the Black Swamp, ruled by Mami Wata, a witchy woman with shrewd insight (played by the big-voiced Marcy Harriell). There are more differences, such as with the third Darling child and Hook’s back story, but the main gist is there.
All of these choices make these characters, even the ragtag pirates and the jealous fairy, more human and in tune with the overarching idea that as we get older we have to act like it. Even Hook is complex, and as played by the marvelous Bradley Dean, his mixture of funny and frightening is more relatable, genuine and sad.
But what makes this take on Peter Pan more forward-thinking is that Wendy is the real hero of the story. As played by the marvelous Isabela Moner, she’s a tomboy who doesn’t let her fearlessness get in the way of rational thought. She loves her brother John (Austin Karkowsky), but doesn’t mother him.
In Fly’s attempt to make every character except Peter come to terms with the real-world concept of growing up, there is a curious scene toward the end that involves the Lost Boys as adults, played by the actors who were the pirates. That might be too literal, as if the theme of transitioning from not wanting grown-ups to tell you what to do, to becoming one, hasn’t already been driven home. But in the end, adult Wendy knows that she can forever run with the motto “make adventures instead of dreaming about them.” She leads by example.