Oh, what a glorious time it is to be 12 years old. At the multiplex, you can watch the latest adventures of Superman or Iron Man, or just sit back and watch zombies destroy humanity in World War Z. At bookstores, you can pick up Veronica Roth’s bestselling “Divergent” trilogy, the latest variation on the dystopian young-adult romance craze kicked off by The Hunger Games, soon to be its own major motion picture.
And over in Dallas, you can check out the world premiere of Fly, a new musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s classic 1904 Peter Pan play, Peter and Wendy, created by three celebrated figures on the national theater scene: playwright Rajiv Joseph (whose Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a finalist for the Pulitzer a few years ago), composer Bill Sherman (who won the Tony for In the Heights) and lyricist Kirsten Childs (who won an Obie award for The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin).
With its Wicked-style mixture of familiar source material, bouncy music and actors on cables soaring across the stage, Fly is clearly hoping to work out the creative kinks in Dallas before eventually making the leap to Broadway — and a long and lucrative commercial run.
(As it turns out, it’s actually one of three Pan-themed projects we’re seeing in North Texas this year. Back in March, Cathy Rigby once again played the title role in a revival of the classic 1950s musical Peter Pan at Bass Hall in Fort Worth; in September, the national tour of the hit play Peter and the Starcatcher, a sort of prequel to Barrie’s Peter and Wendy that won five Tony Awards when it played on Broadway, turns up at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas.)
To be fair, Fly — which shifts the dramatic focus of the story from Peter Pan and Captain Hook to Wendy, the pre-teen girl realizing that a permanent childhood probably isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — has much to recommend it. This time, Peter Pan, Wendy and the Lost Boys are played by actual children (as opposed to, say, a 60-year-old Cathy Rigby), and they bring an infectious, youthful brio to the proceedings. The set design by Anna Louizos, which renders Neverland as a kind of maze of soaring bamboo sticks, manages the feat of being eye-popping without coming off as show-offy or garish.
Yet at the opening-night performance, I couldn’t help but feel like a cranky curmudgeon — the guy who wishes these pesky kids would get off the stage. Not just because Fly seems to have been created in some sort of soulless, Broadway mega-musical laboratory, all spectacle and no soul (in addition to Wicked, it borrows liberally from the likes of The Lion King and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark).
But also because the audience seemed so wholly taken with work that, at best, seems to exist solely to provide diversion for attention-addled 12-year-olds and their harried parents. During intermission, I overheard people marveling over the flying acrobats, or the how-did-they-pull-that-off? number in which a character rises from the stage, her massive and billowing gray dress forming a kind of wall in front of her. Variations on the phrase “This is going to be a huge hit” could be heard again and again.
What no one talked about was whether Fly brought new insight to a familiar tale (it doesn’t), or whether the music was especially memorable or moving (save a second-act number about a young boy remembering his deceased brother, most of the songs are interchangeable).
Weaned on the past two decades of FX-driven razzle-dazzle onstage, at the movies, even in television shows like Heroes or The Walking Dead, supposedly grown-up audiences barely seem capable of distinguishing between serious art and ephemeral flash. Instead, everything is processed through a commercial lens: Is it easily marketable? Does it have crossover appeal?
And what makes this all even more exasperating is that more and more gifted young musicians, writers and artists are playing along, perhaps understandably. Indeed, why should a writer like Rajiv Joseph bother toiling over a challenging play about war, corruption and humanity’s capacity for cruelty like Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo when only a handful of risk-taking theatergoers will take a chance on seeing it — and when he can make a heck of a lot more money penning a cutesy Peter Pan musical?
The irony is that, at heart, Fly, like all Peter Pan stories, is about the tension between wanting to remain a child forever and realizing that at some point you must grow up. In writing Peter and Wendy, J.M. Barrie’s message was that a careful balance must be struck: No matter how old or world-weary you get, you can never lose your sense of youthful whimsy.
But when pretty much everything in our popular culture these days is whimsy and juvenilia, whether it’s the giant robots that fight the giant monsters in Pacific Rim, or the mystical dome that severs a cow in half in Under the Dome, or Adam Sandler getting urinated upon by a deer in Grown Ups 2, well, you can’t help but wonder if we’re suffering from a kind of Peter Pan syndrome writ large. And that, at least when it comes to challenging ourselves and broadening our cultural horizons, it’s time we all start acting our age.