"I'm youth! I'm joy! I'm freedom!"
By the time Nancy Anderson cries these words in the third act of the production of Peter Pan that just opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, they've long slid into redundancy. The luminous Anderson, giving one of her most dazzling performances yet (and that's saying something) as the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, embodies them so fully from the get-go that to witness her is also to absorb their deepest, most profound meaning.
Specifically, that the theatre dissolves all boundaries between what you think you know and what you don't, and what you see and what you feel. James M. Barrie's play, which premiered on Broadway in 1905, has always been about aging, and its undeserved reputation as an act of ongoing sacrifice. This 1954 musical expansion—with music by Mark Charlap, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, and additional bits of both by (respectively) Jule Styne and Betty Comden and Adolph Green—expresses that theme in two ways that are so effective that the original songless version is essentially superfluous. First, with musical numbers that capture both the adventure of youth and the folly of assuming it will last forever (or, more pointedly, wanting it to). And second, by filtering those lessons through the timeless instrument of female musical star power as represented originally by Mary Martin and almost as famously in 1979 by Sandy Duncan.
It's only Millburn's remove from Broadway that threatens Anderson's inclusion in such vaunted company. Shedding all of her trademark coquettish sexiness (which was recently so stunning in Yank! Off-Broadway, but also a fizzy delight in Fanny Hill) and 20th-century chameleonic tendencies (which have thrilled in the likes of A Class Act and Wonderful Town on Broadway, No, No, Nanette at Encores!, and Kiss Me, Kate in London and on video), Anderson makes Peter perhaps her most thorough transformation yet, proving beyond a doubt that she's not just an estimable singer (of both belt and legit styles) but also a masterful actress as well.
Her Peter is exactly what he must be to convince as both the leader of a sextet of Lost Boys and the object of two women's unspoken desires (okay, so one is technically a fairy): all boy. With a tight-cropped mop of hair, a balletic strut of a walk, and an utterly unaffected voice, from the moment this Peter flies onstage in search of his shadow, you accept him as a carefree, fun-loving troublemaker. Whether crowing like a rooster, teaching the trio of Darling children to fly, or doing battle with the dastardly Captain Hook, he's going to seize everything life has to offer and thrill to the idea of forever being young enough to enjoy it.
But just as integral to her portrayal—and an uncommon addition—is the cobwebby realization, which Peter does everything he can to ignore, that his deepest dreams can never completely come true. Catch, for example, the undercurrent of sadness in the "Distant Melody" lullaby, the unspoken acceptance that he alone is destined for eternal youth and solitude. Or the pinpricks of anger streaking "I Won't Grow Up," practically threatening the other Lost Boys to agree with him. Or, of course, the two moments of unvarnished drama: when a sick Tinkerbell requires the audience's applause to regain full strength, or the wrenching final scene in which Peter learns the impact of—yet rejects outright—time's true cost.
Through it all, Anderson never looks back; she trusts at each juncture that the only direction for Peter is ever and always "second to the right and straight on till morning." When Peter begs you to clap to save Tinkerbell's life, how can you refuse? It's all he wants—though in a minute, he'll want only to taunt Captain Hook on the deck of his ship. Some performers stumble in finding a consistent humanity beneath Peter's rapidly shifting whims, but Anderson sees and presents them as all part of a single boy's own unique survival instinct. Over the course of two and a half exhilarating hours, this resolves into a personality as rich as you'll find in any Broadway musical from the just-finished season (and, sadly, several before that).
If you've seen the late-1950s TV broadcast (which is available on DVD) recreating Jerome Robbins's original conception (with much of the original cast), you've seen the sumptuous baseline for Peter. Nearly 60 years on, Martin is still absorbing, her own indomitable force of childlike nature at its best. Anderson is in every way different—in many places more innocent and less sly, but also more likely to be dangerous or even callous (particularly in the last scene)—she's every bit as effective. Having memorized the Martin video—and been exposed too often to a too-old and too-tired Cathy Rigby over the last 20 years—I didn't expect that even the infinitely resourceful Anderson could find new colors in this oft-mixed palette. But many of the ways she's painted her Peter are more vivid and original than any I've ever seen before.
The same is not quite true of the rest of the production. Though directed by Paper Mill Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee, it is in many ways an adaptation or tribute to the last (and endless) Rigby tour, with the same sets (John Iacovelli), costumes (Shigeru Yaji, with a bit of augmentation by Thom Heyer), and choreographer (Patti Colombo). Though I dare say, all of them make a stronger impression here, in part because of Anderson's vivifying presence and in part because of Hoebee's commitment to the story, which is rarely told as crisply or as honestly as it is here. Even Colombo's dances pulse with new life; though I much prefer the original "Ugg-a-Wugg" to the PC-ified revision used here, which relies too much on challenge drumming and not enough on singing, a more charismatic Tiger Lily (the fetching Jessica Lee Goldyn, best known from the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line) makes it seem like the expression of friendship it is rather than just a paint-by-numbers showstopper.
The other performances are a bit more variable. Glory Crampton surely must be the most glamorous Mrs. Darling in history, providing a shocking burst of fire with practically no stage time. As John and Michael Darling, Josh Pins and Lewis Grosso (at the performance I attended; Jack Broderick alternates) are serviceably charming, if the former doesn't quite radiate pre-adolescent mischief as readily as pre–graduate school malaise. Haley Podschun is too elevated and knowing to really convince as Wendy, but she has an amiable onstage presence and a lovely voice. She can't, however, pull off the impossible coup of playing the character as both a tween and someone "ever so much more than twenty"; as far as I can tell, this is entirely a Hoebee invention, and an absurd and unplayable one other directors should not emulate.
Douglas Sills, as both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, is doing something I never thought I'd see him do: underplay. Almost everything. I didn't even know he had it in him, to be honest. And now that I've seen it, I must ask: Why Captain Hook? If any role screams for smarmy scenery chewing, it's this one—the fey model adopted by the originator, Cyril Ritchard, is far from the only solution, and one that wouldn't work for Sills in any case. But that the same actor who's played the likes of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors, and Oscar Jaffee in the Actors' Fund concert of On the Twentieth Century, would see Captain Hook as an opportunity for a complex, psychoanalytic portrayal (as well as one that frequently involves swallowing half his lines) is, frankly, bewildering. And it doesn't work, as Hook needs to be as absurd in his way as Peter is in his so that he's a credible threat. Sills looks like a model parading through a Pirate Chic exposition during fashion week; his frequent and anachronistic ad-libs don't help him establish the sense of vicious comic authority the character must radiate above all else.
Of course, this matters only so much: This always has been, and always will be, Peter's show. And with Anderson soaring at its center, you wouldn't want it any other way. Playful, peripatetic, and pained, yet always resolutely real, she captures enough eternal life to both compensate for Sills and make you feel young again yourself. Magic, you say? Maybe. But you don't need to believe in fairies to witness it—though you shouldn't be shocked if Anderson compels you to clap, too. She's just that way. And she will make you believe in something you may have thought were just as extinct: true stars. They may be rarer these days than they were in the heydays of Martin, Duncan, Mrs. Maude Adams, Jean Arthur, and the other great actresses who've played Peter. But Anderson is the singing, dancing, and flying proof that, in some ways at least, they—like Peter—are more alive than ever.
Photos by Kevin Sprague. Top to bottom: Nancy Anderson; Nancy Anderson, Jessica Lee Goldyn, and company; Douglas Sills and Nancy Anderson.