“Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan” – Childsplay

This review aired on KBAQ May 2, 2016


Tempe Center for the Arts
Tempe, AZ

In 1954, I watched Mary Martin’s magical television Peter Pan and her charming waif has always personified the central Neverland character who doesn’t want to grow up to me.  So a new approach to the familiar story tailored for today’s youth that’s never heard of Martin and where the dream land has to transition to a realistic and contemporary place is a challenge to longstanding perceptions.

That’s exactly what local playwright Dwayne Hartford has done to create “Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan.”  Some of the differences older theatergoers will notice include a less enchanting and more realistic title character, less vicious fighting sequences that are funny, and nasty pirates have become women while others become quickly moving ninjas who use karate to win battles.  The greatest change is that Peter’s elusive sex is now male as opposed to a disguised female.

The changes are a challenge to accept for a traditionalist but the standing ovation and rapt attention by young theatergoers suggest that this is the ideal fate of J. M. Barrie’s 1904 play.  The new version emphasizes the story’s importance of friendship, acceptance of divergent identities since Wendy’s brother appears gay, and the original four kids has been reduced to just Wendy and her brother, Henry.  This approach challenges traditionalists but it helps defray the story’s idealized look in the Martin version so today’s kids can better accept the tale.

There are big changes in the earlier version’s magical effects.  No longer do Peter and the kids fly to Neverland using harnesses and unseen wires.  The journey now has Warriors carry them to dreamland.  Neverland is no longer a dreamy fantasyland but the unit set has become a constructionist place where nooks and crannies become various locales and the costumes have contemporary styling and color.

The energized cast is filled with dynamos who tackle the new approach with earnest conviction including Rebecca Duckworth’s athletic Wendy, Gavin Austin Brown’s nimble and constantly moving Peter, Debra K. Stevens and Katie McFadzen’s splashy villains, Jon Gentry’s matter-of-fact Smee plus Bobby Shook and Marshall Vosler’s kung-fu style Warrior’s.  David Saar’s directorial pizzazz keeps the show zipping along using the tricks and clever gimmicks he’s patented during his 40 years as Childsplay’s founder and artistic director.

“Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan” is a refreshing new take on the classic story that will appeal to contemporary kids and challenge their adult companions to abandon ingrained perceptions.  It earns five stars out of five as a dynamic new look at a familiar story.  It continues through May 22.  For tickets, call the Tempe Center for the Arts box office at 480-350-2822 ext. 2 or order tickets online at www.childsplayaz.org.

Grade: A