With all due respect to the ever-lovely Leslie Bellair — whose other local theater credits include charming turns in Horizon’s “Avenue Q,” Georgia Ensemble’s “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and Aurora’s “Singin’ in the Rain” — I’ve often wondered: Why does it seem to be mandated (so to speak) that the part of Peter Pan, the famous “boy who wouldn’t grow up,” always be performed by an adult actress?
Before eventually adapting the story into a novel, J.M. Barrie initially wrote “Peter Pan” for the stage. Maude Adams originated the mischievous title role in the 1905 New York premiere, and even the legendary likes of Eva Le Gallienne and Jean Arthur played it in subsequent revivals. A popular, oft-produced musical version of the show debuted in the 1950s, first starring Mary Martin, and later featuring Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby and (on live TV, most recently) Allison Williams.
Bellair makes a certifiably breathtaking entrance in Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s “Peter Pan.” Two large windows at the back of Broadway/Hollywood designer John Iacovelli’s imported set (a sumptuous Victorian-era nursery) swing open, suddenly revealing a night sky illuminated by sparkling stars (lighting by Andre C. Allen), when in flies Bellair, hoisted through midair on a wire and executing a perfectly graceful landing at center stage.
In a word: Wow.
Disappointingly, that sense of childlike awe and make-believe — so crucial in supporting a fairy tale that cautions against the logical inevitabilities of adulthood — doesn’t last long in director Jeff McKerley’s muddled and meandering Lyric production. Curiously, once Peter sprinkles his fairy dust and takes off with the Darling children (Devon Hales as Wendy, Evan Bauer as John, Joseph Masson as Michael), leaving behind “real” life in turn-of-the-century London for the timeless fantasy world of Never Land, the show quickly loses its magic and grinds to a crawl.
The understandably dated script remains credited to Barrie. The trifling “original songs” are by Mark (“Moose”) Charlap and Carolyn Leigh, with “additional music and lyrics” by the more highly regarded trio of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Whoever wrote which, the most familiar tunes include “I’m Flying,” “Never Never Land” and “I Won’t Grow Up.” For McKerley’s Lyric show, B.J. Brown serves as musical director (working with a prerecorded instrumental track).
In a lot of the bigger numbers (choreographed by Ricardo Aponte), Peter and the Darlings are basically pushed aside — and that goes for the green laser pointer that is effectively Tinkerbell, too — in order to spotlight those irrepressibly precocious orphans, the Lost Boys; the vexing Tiger Lily (Natalie Rhae Goodwin) and her equally pale-faced chorus line of fellow Indian maidens; and a motley crew of pirate buffoons, led by the allegedly “dark and sinister” Captain Hook (Alan Kilpatrick camps it up like a fop instead, possibly as directed).
Again, it’s nothing personal, but Bellair can’t win for losing. She’s the brightest thing about the Lyric’s “Peter Pan,” even if casting an actual teenage boy, for a change, might have provided just the breath of fresh air the show so desperately needs.