Sandy Duncan is a living doll, and George Rose can be an amusing fellow, but it is with limited enthusiasm that I report the opening of a new Broadway season last night at the Lunt-Fontanne with a revival of "Peter Pan." This is not the 75-year-old Barrie fantasy pure-and-simple, but the 1954 song-and-dance version concocted by Jerome Robbins with the help of two songwriting teams and, most important of all, starring a flying Mary Martin.
Duncan, who first caught Broadway's eye a little over 10 years ago as a sexy, animated Chaucerian character in "Canterbury Tales," is a smashing Peter Pan to behold, and looks, if anything, even younger than she did a decade ago. And, thanks to a genius of a technician named simply Foy, who keeps Peter, Wendy and the two other Darling children aloft and soaring in separate patterns with all the skill of a Kennedy control-tower operator, Duncan flies like a dream, saving her final effect, a swoop right over the heads of the audience, for her ultimate curtain call.
She's bright, nifty, and trim as can be, but something of the needed air of exultation is missing from her performance, and for some reason, and despite the fact that the players are miked, her "crows" at the end of each title phrase of the song "I've Got to Crow," sound recorded - loud, clear and all alike. She sings and cavorts engagingly, but not excitingly except when aloft.
Much the same can be said of Rose, who, though he's not wired to fly in his dual role of the father, Mr. Darling, and the fantasy figure, Captain Hook, is giving what is at best a routine performance for him, and his Hook makeup hinders him by striking an uneasy balance between a grin and a menacing leer. Rose simply looks wrong as Hook. In fact, in this production, staged by Rob Iscove along the lines originally laid down by Robbins, it is the sumptuous scenery, lighting and special effects, along with the wonderful costumes, which include a splendidly greedy green crocodile and a large white shaggy dog, that almost seem to steal the show.
And "Peter Pan" - the musical, anyway - is a show very much in need of stealing. Though some of the songs - "Neverland" and "I've Got to Crow," to cite two of the best - are enjoyable enough, this is hardly a topnotch musical effort, a fact attested to by the realization, 25 years ago, that a second team (Comden-Green-Styne) was needed to bolster the show's musical elements.
As for Barrie's play, a sometimes puzzling mixture of childish and adult fantasy (of course, it never was intended solely for children, but mostly for more gullible adults), it shows its age as its none-too-clever plot devices keep shifting gears.
At the Wednesday matinee I attended, there were so many children that one realized how few Broadway shows there are for kids and how hungry parents are to find them. The house, though sold out, looked almost half empty with so many tots in their mothers' laps. The management is wise to have scheduled three matinees a week, but would probably be even wiser to sell each seat for two, mother and child, at, say, 1½ times the normal price.
I hope the children take it to their hearts, as they surely did the clever laser-beamed Tinker Bell they applauded back to life at the end of Act Two. And they must surely love Sandy Duncan. But the players (there is one noticeably fine pirate) would do well to screw up their courage and believe as strongly in "Peter Pan" as the audience is called upon to express faith in Tinker Bell.
Traditionally, the first Broadway musical of the season either soars, roars, sails, or schleps into town. The revival of Peter Pan which opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater is the first musical in memory to fly into town. And if we children have anything to say about the matter, it shall keep flying on Broadway for many nights (and matinees) to come.
James M. Barrie's celebration of childhood has enchanted audience young and old since 1904, when it opened in London as "A play with music" about a little boy who wouldn't grow up. The flocks of actresses who spread their wings in the role, from Maude Adams to Jean Arthur and the adored Mary Martin, all, alas, had to grow up. But not while they were playing Peter Pan. Indeed, the role is so magical that it seems to confer immortality.
As the Peter of the moment, Sandy Duncan promises us that she, too, is forever-young, forever-Peter. And we do believe, even if Tinkerbell's life didn't happen to depend upon it. From the moment she flies into the Darling nursery and throws a tantrum because she can't stick her wayward shadow back on, Duncan alerts us that her Peter will be all boy. An adorable boy, to be sure, with her grin-cracked face and graceful bounds into mid-air; but a boy, for all that, with ants in his pants and a nose that runs and a downright willful disdain for authority. Without losing any of the fun of the role, she avoids even the most tempting moments to be cute, or to signal a flash of grownup femininity. Her Peter is, at all times, a tough little guy who literally dances with the itchy joy of boyhood.
More important, Duncan plays the eternal child in us all, the imp of youth so dear to itself that Peter gives up everything else in the world to hang onto it. Most of us wouldn't do such a thing, even if we could. It's too lonely. But we are still, and always, tempted. Which is what makes Peter so entrancing and so scary.
To grownups, that is. To children, Peter flies free, lugging none of this baggage that makes grownups sigh wistfully over roads not taken and receding hairlines and such. For them, Rob Iscove's wonderful production offers more immediate delights. Working from the 1954 Broadway production conjured up by Jerome Robbins for Mary Martin, Iscove and his stalwart production company have built a magical world of dreams-come-true. Peter Wolf's charming Victorian-dollhouse design for the Darling children's nursery pales only beside his vision of Neverland, with its secret house beneath the tree roots and its menacing pirate ship on the lagoon.
In this fabulous kingdom of the imagination, ostriches dance, crocodiles creep (and tick), Indians whoop, pirates swashbuckle, and children can dream whatever they please. Naturally, they please to dream of Peter Pan's nemesis Captain Hook, in George Rose's delicious performance, the baddest and silliest villain ever to don long black curls and fuchsia pirate gear. (Actually he could be a little badder and a little less silly, but what the hey, it's not my dream.)
The funny thing about this production is that it carries on as if it really were a show for children, when we all know it's a grownup treat.
Yes, the dancing demands are a bit too strenuous for real children, but one still wishes that some of the lost children of Neverland were not quite so long in the tooth. Or that Darling Wendy were quite so tall or quite so darling. But these reservations are made feebly, dulled by such joys of the production as George Rose's petulant Mr. Darling, Arnold Soboloff's cringing Pirate Smee, Beth Fowler's comfy Mrs. D., and Trey Wilson's Nana, a dog among dogs.
Okay, so the kids are going to have a ball. But back to the grownups. Without being patronizing to the dramatist who has been called "the child in a state of nature, unabashed," could J.M. Barrie really have been aware, in 1904, of exactly what he had written?
He probably took a real delight in depicting adulthood as a somber, boring state of existence. And he probably didn't care that he portrayed women as wet blankets who spoil all a guy's fun and squeeze the life and joy from their boy-children. But even after acknowledging the subtle wit of the dialogue and the sly whimsy behind the play's "childish" fun, it still seems unlikely that the author of Peter Pan was aware of the psycho-sexual undertones of his beloved nursery tale.
I mean, between the sexual ambiguity of the leading character (Pache, dear Sandy Duncan!) and the castration symbolism of Peter's cutting off Captain ("Daddy") Hook's hand, there's enough food for thought to fill a plate. To say nothing of the fact that the play is a jolly telling of the Oedipus myth with music, what with Peter's "marrying" Wendy and tossing his old Dad to the croc, and all that. And as for Peter's lost shadow...
But enough, lads. Just let it be said that, in more ways than expected ones, this endlessly enchanting Peter Pan has something for everyone.
Sandy Duncan has convinced me of one thing, at least. Flying is the only way to go. From the time of her moonburst entrance through the suddenly parted rooftop windows of the Darling nursery right through to her second curtain call - in which she soars rather farther than most performers would care to chance - Miss Duncan is a Peter Pan who is at her most exhilarating when dizzyingly airborne.
Isn't every actress who permits herself to be sturdily wired for the part? No. Don't let me count the ways in which I've seen "Peter Pan" done, with or without music, but the fact is that I've seen gingerly Peters and determinedly brave Peters and Peters whose false-face grins began to vanish the minute they got anywhere near the too too solid portals. Also seen dandy ones, Mary Martin high among them.
But there is something extra about Miss Duncan's invasion of space. Though you can easily glimpse the wire that's keeping her company whenever a fellow-spot hits it, it doesn't seem to be doing the heavy work. She's too light for that, and too happy to get going. Instead of the usual little tug that starts a performer off the floor, after which the performer assumes a bent-knee flight position, Miss Duncan seems to make the first move, as though she'd been caught in an updraft. She just lets go of gravity, gracefully and gleefully, and lets the mechanical equipment catch up as best it can. Ditto when she touches down, toes first (no thump), soft as a dust-speck settling into a corner.
In between, when she's up there - sometimes pumping her elbows like a miler warming up, mostly making great arcs against the skyline like a seagull gone daft - she's exhilarating. The Playbill for the Lunt-Fontanne says "Flying by Foy," whoever Foy may be. But that's nonsense. This flying is by Duncan, and it's the most abandoned I've ever seen.
This revived musical version of Sir James M. Barrie's oldest permanent established floating whimsy doesn't run into trouble until it gets its feet on the ground. Even then there's enough in the way of vivid primary colors to keep our eyes open and blinking: A Tinker Bell who darts about like skywriting, shimmers emerald-green, and can even spell; a trio of gnarled trees with leaves made of wintergreen that have plainly taken dancing lessons: a crocodile that may have been to see "Jaws" and promptly developed himself a set of enormous if shockingly irregular teeth; and a downpour of stars on the backdrop that looks like an endless supply of candy creams waiting to be dipped. Designer Peter Wolf and light-man Thomas Skelton have been busy, sometimes to amusing purpose.
But there is trouble. In the long second act (of three), it's simply this. Barrie's plotting (my God, am I going to defend the plotting of "Peter Pan"?) and the little psychological contretemps that developed between Peter and Wendy have been ditched, or mentioned cursorily and tossed away. Tossed aside in favor of production numbers created specifically for other performers nearly 25 years ago.
"Peter Pan," for all that Mary Martin and television were able to make of it, was never exactly a landmark musical in Broadway history. It was a patch job - be nice and call it a patchwork quilt - originally put together by Mark Charlap and Carolyn Leigh, then hurriedly supplied with seven new songs on the road by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Nothing wrong with the tunes and lyrics; there's a nice cockiness from the first team ("I've Got to Crow") and some sweet phrasing from the second ("Distant Melody"). Nor is the mix of styles jolting. But merely the entire act seems composed of special material designed to make the most of Miss Martin and her then Captain Hook (Cyril Ritchard). It doesn't serve the new company in the same way.
Miss Duncan, with her slight, lithe build and her close-cropped hair, is much more nearly a boy than Miss Martin was, which makes it rather preposterous for her to drape herself in a veil, waggle a rose above her head, and prove instantly enticing to Captain Hook ("Mysterious Lady"). And dear old Hook, in this case George Rose, fares rather more poorly. Mr. Rose is a master of understatement, an exemplary deadpan farceur; the need to contort his evil countenance, complete with penciled-in mustache, in the broad Restoration-Comedy style of his predecessor is enough of a strain to push him over into camp. The center of the evening becomes a series of set-pieces, virtually vaudeville, with Barrie's real charm (admit it) shouldered brusquely to one side. Even when the material functions efficiently (a dance centered on Tiger Lily called "Ugg-A-Wugg"), the numbers come to seem gratuitous, songs in search of a narrative.
Miss Duncan could play "Peter Pan" straight, as she plainly demonstrates in her momentary bewilderment over what Wendy expects in the way of affection, or in her briefly bitter report on a failed journey home. But there's no time for much of that. The hurry-scurry of Rob Iscove's stage direction, and the restlessness in the pit, gobble up the play's mysteriously affecting points.
The kids will love it anyway; you don't have to worry about that. Remember, they haven't even seen Nana, with her despairing eyes and her one lopsided gray ear, yet. I found myself gradually neutralized, except in midflight.