Regional Reviews: Phoenix
With cell phones, words like "cool" and "awesome," karate, and, most importantly, female characters that are just as strong as the male roles in the show, Hartford's adventure brings a fresh, modern sensibility to Barrie's story. Wendy and Henry are the great, great grandchildren of the original Wendy from "Peter Pan." Rebellious Wendy is tired of her demanding mother and wishes she could find a way to not have to follow her rules. When she opens up a box that her grandmother buried when she was a girl it sends up a beacon to the sky that brings Peter Pan from Neverland to Wendy's side. Peter quickly whisks Wendy and Henry to Neverland where they encounter female pirates, ninja warriors and even pterodactyls. Wendy butts heads with the somewhat conceited Peter but still finds the adventure that she desires. But is Neverland the solution that Wendy seeks to escape from her controlling mother, or just a temporary stop on the journey to learn some valuable life lessons?
With the modern practice of shortening or abbreviating words, Hartford also adds a fun spin on the characters names. When Henry calls Peter "Pete," Peter decides to call Henry "Hen," and even tries to call Wendy "Wen." But Wendy tells Peter that she's "just Wendy," so that's what Pete decides to call her, "Just Wendy." Hartford creates identifiable characters and situations that will resonate with any parent or child. His continual use of humor keeps the show light. But there are also plenty of well-choreographed fight sequences (by David Barker) that incorporate the entire cast and bring athletic and comic-infused adventure to the show. While Hartford wisely keeps any hint of schmaltz out of the show, don't be surprised if you find yourself a little misty eyed like I was during the play's moving and heartfelt final scenes. The only downsides to the production are small, but a cast of only eight does make Neverland seem a little desolate and, while the end result is a fun and even moving adventure, there could be a little tightening of the script to speed up some of the action in the two hour running time.
The cast includes several talented Childsplay regulars as well as a few new faces. Rebecca Duckworth and Gavin Austin Brown are very good as Wendy and Peter. They both bring a youthful glow to the parts and plenty of self-assuredness as well. Duckworth's athletic abilities and Brown's lean physique instill their many action sequences with realism as the duo continually run, tumble, and jump all over the jungle gym like set. Alan Khoutakoun is appropriately bright-eyed, energetic and rambunctious as Henry. Childsplay favorites Debra K. Stevens, Katie McFadzen, and Jon Gentry are all excellent, with Gentry charming as Smee, and Stevens and McFadzen a funny duo as female pirates and equally moving as Wendy's grandmother and mother, respectively. Rounding out the cast are Bobby Shook and Marshall Vosler who have a natural acrobatic ease as two of the ninja Warrior in Black fighters.
Director David Saar elicits wonderful performances from the cast and effectively uses Carey Wong's inventive, scaffolding-style, two-tiered scenic design to create plenty of inventive playing areas. The costume designs from Rebecca Akins are both fun and modern, with lush designs for the pirates and appropriate modern clothing for the kids.
Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan is a fun-filled adventure that wisely updates Barrie's famous story to modern times while also giving an equal balance to the female characters. The days of Wendy playing "mother" and tending to the lost boys' house while Peter and the boys are off on an adventure are long gone. While it could be tightened up a bit, with a gifted cast, clear direction, and fun creative elements, children of all ages will most likely jump at the chance to join Peter and Wendy on their fun filled adventure.
Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan at Childsplay runs through May 22nd, 2016, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, with performances on Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Tickets are on sale at www.childsplayaz.org or at the Tempe Center for the Arts Box Office (480) 350-2822 (ext. 0).
Director: David Saar