OREM–I had never been to the Hale Center Theater in Orem before last weekend, so I was surprised by the small, unimpressive exterior of the building. I was unable to find parking in the small lot and ended up in the weedy vacant lot next door. It took more than one try to find an open door to enter the intimate performance space. The small stage was surrounded on three sides by an audience that was packed in as close as they could be and still abide by the fire code, yet they seemed very willing to accept the close quarters as an audience to participate in the theatrical event that awaited them. They clearly knew something I didn’t.
J.M. Barrie‘s Peter Pan original play was first set to music by the composer and lyricist team Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It soon became a Broadway favorite, and eventually a familiar old standby for musical theater where audiences enter the theater already already knowing what will happen when Wendy, John, and Michael Darling travel to Neverland with Peter Pan and Tinker Bell. Still, Hale theater had a few tricks up their sleeve that made the musical feel brand new.
Director/ Choreographer David Tinney‘s choice to dust off an old script in such an unconventional venue could have easily gone awry. The venue has no space for flying, no walls for projecting a shadow, and no instruments in an orchestra pit to give Tinker Bell a voice. Tinney’s production turned my expectations on their head, shook them up, and reassembled the elements of this play into something stunning.
The play opened with each character introducing himself in the third person, as the other cast members ‘set up the stage’ with items pulled from a magic trunk like an Acme bag. The actors then settled themselves among the audience until they would be needed onstage. During the overture, the audience was introduced to the Darling family. Without a word spoken, we were shown the relationship between Mrs. Darling and her children, Mr. Darling and his wife, and Nana the dog and the Darling. We got to witness firsthand the shenanigans of Michael and John. By the time the overture ended and the first line was spoken, enough had been established for the actors to launch into the story.
The actors in this production are perfectly cast. Wendy (Marissa Smith) had just the right blend of girlhood and budding awareness of relationships between men and women. Brothers John (Caleb Tinney) and Michael (Nick Gledhill) were so believable as little boys that I completely forgot they were grown men themselves. Elizabeth Dabczynski-Bean was cast in the double role of Mrs. Darling and Tiger Lily, and brought interesting nuance to both characters. An exceptional performance was given by Ben Henderson as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, who gave a truly outstanding mix of brusqueness and guilt, as the father; and the perfect soupcon of mincing and whining as Hook, without resorting to screeching and bellowing. The ensemble work was delightful as well. The Indians, Pirates, and Lost Boys provided laughter and fun to balance out the underlying theme that time marches on relentlessly. And the scene with the mermaids was an easy favorite I’d willingly drive to Orem to see again.
And of course, we must discuss Peter, himself. Josh Valdez played Peter with energy and emotion and heart and a dollop of ne’er-do-well. Valdez was charming and sweet, rude and unfeeling all at the same time. He struck a terrific balance between the boy who won’t grow up and an almost young man who sees what the future holds for him and runs headlong away from it, even if it means breaking the hearts of those people closest to him. Valdez has a devil-may-care face and an athletic prowess that combine to make a wonderful Peter Pan. Tinney and Valdez used outside-the-box solutions to flying scenes so that I didn’t even miss the usual effects of large-scale productions. Once I suspended my disbelief, and squinted just a bit, I felt like I was in Neverland with Wendy and the boys.
The set design (Bobby Swenson) is fairly simple: an open space painted with a clock motif, gears and numbers and clock hands decorating every surface except center-stage. The stage center is bedecked with a map of Neverland. A large round window is suspended from the ceiling as the audience enters; a cross between a ship’s steering wheel and a porthole, which later serves as the window into the nursery, a mirror, and other clever functions. Penny Jones‘ scenic painting was beautiful. Taking a close look, audience members will see small references to the many prior adaptations of Pan lore.
MaryAnn Hill’s costume design was an homage to both the Disney adaptation (Wendy in a blue nightdress, John in a top hat and Michael in footie pajamas) mingled with the more modern interpretations of Peter and the Startcatcher, and touches of the Steam Punk genre as well. Every element was instantly recognizable, yet updated and fresh, not tired or cliché. Hill makes use of a ‘tie’ motif throughout as well, which is not at first noticeable, but reveals itself layer by layer. Mr. Darling’s complaint in the beginning of the story that he cannot tie his tie, and the consequences thereof, set the theme in motion. From there on, ties are everywhere: in the Indians’ headdresses, trimming Captain Hook’s glorious pirate coat, as a net to capture the Lost Boys, blindfolds and more. The motif was eventually referenced to fantastic effect
I was impressed at how remarkably this production made something fresh out of a play that could have easily felt tired or clichéd. I was struck by how such magic was found inside the very unassuming exterior of Orem’s Hale Center Theatre. The production staff and cast created a beautiful show that will delight all audiences, whether they’re familiar with the story or are meeting Peter Pan for the first time.