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Review: Despite fine lead actors, SummerFest's 'Peter Pan' is victim of its own ambition

July 6, 2013

YellowBrix

July 06--SummerFest's production of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan is nothing if not ambitious.

From the heavy use of student actors to the variety of theatrical techniques employed to the sheer will to open the event on time, the production aims as high as a flock of children and fairies flying over the London skyline.

Sometimes it soars -- but the show also has numerous crashes.

It's a fairly traditional telling of Peter Pan, the story of a boy who doesn't want to grow up and takes three English children off to Neverland, where they befriend Indians and battle pirates.

The production introduces several actors to the Arboretum stage, chiefly Chris Williams in the title role. Entering in a single bound and nonchalantly pulling off feats like one-armed cartwheels, he exudes the physical prowess to play the boy who never wants to grow up. But the adult actor also embodies the boy persona: pouty and selfish while commanding his band of Lost Boys.

He also has a spirited foil in Tinker Bell, played by Williams' real-life wife, Stephanie Valentino Williams, who had no trouble manifesting Tink's jealously when Peter casts his innocent eyes on Wendy Darling.

Though Tink was usually relegated to the sides of the stage, here using a green laser pointer to represent her fairy character, Williams quickly established the sprite with a distinct, petulant personality.

As Wendy, Hallie Hargus conveyed the big sister's simultaneous authority, vulnerability and puppy love for a boy who can't see females as anything but mothers.

Standing in opposition to all of them was Captain Hook, played by Jason Paul Tate (who doubled as the children's dad). His Hook cheated toward the whiny, flamboyant side of the character, so he was never particularly scary. But he was always lots of fun to watch and had an equally amusing sidekick in Smee, played almost as big as Hook by Cody Taylor.

When these actors were commanding the scenes, the show was at its best.

But the production fell apart in confusing, clumsy ensemble scenes that frequently stalled, particularly the Indian war dance in Act I and the walk-the-plank scene in Act II.

One of the distinctions of director Vanessa Weig's production is the use of a variety of puppets to convey some of the story's fantastical moments. With walking puppets like the Nana the dog and the crocodile, ethereal images of mermaids and shadow puppets for flight, it was the show's most ambitious component. You had to admire the effort, even though it wasn't completely successful.

The shadow puppets, in particular, were fascinating but clumsily executed. The walking puppets were slow, contributing to the inertia of some scenes.

In fairness, due to the weather this week, this production lost several technical rehearsals, and maybe some of the techniques will improve over the next seven performances. Theater education is wonderful, but this show exemplifies a question SummerFest has been struggling with since its inception in 2007, following the demise of the Lexington Shakespeare Festival: Is it a forum for the best Lexington talents to come together to present great plays in a big venue, as the Arboretum festival traditionally has been, or is it an educational theater where audiences should expect to see theater students in progress?

The other major ambition Friday was the effort to open the show. It did happen, but the way SummerFest directors handled it was abysmal.

With steady-to-heavy rain falling most of the previous two days, it did not seem the performance was going to happen. There's a fair argument to be made that it shouldn't have. Rain had fallen for two days straight, and even after the show started, rain and drizzle continued, creating a persistent distraction that didn't give the performance a fair shot at success.

At the published 8:45 p.m. showtime, actors were on stage in street clothes -- in front of the assembled audience -- occasionally working through scenes with little sense of urgency. This continued until well after 9. In that time, no one from SummerFest came out to explain what was happening.

It was reminiscent of being on an airplane sitting on the tarmac with no updates on the situation. The show finally took off about 9:30, with only scant acknowledgement that the audience had come out in gloomy, rainy weather for a show that they expected to be cancelled, and was then made to wait 45 minutes.

SummerFest's handling of the situation showed a complete disregard for the audience, and perhaps took the old adage of "the show must go on" too far.

There is such a thing as being overly ambitious.

IF YOU GO

SummerFest

What: Outdoor theater presented by Kentucky Conservatory Theatre.

Shows: Peter Pan, July 5-7, 10-14. A Chorus Line, July 24-28, July 31-Aug. 4.

When: 8:45 p.m., gates open at 7.

Where: The Arboretum, State Botanical Garden of Kentucky, 500 Alumni Dr.

Tickets: Both shows: $25 general admission, $35 reserved chair, $120 reserved blanket space for four. Single show: $15 advance, $18 at the gate general admission; $20 advance, $25 gate reserved chair; $65 advance, $90 gate for reserved blanket for four. Visit Mykct.org to order.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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