Fly into Neverland at Warner Theatre for ‘Peter Pan’

Fairies and actors are very similar. They need you to applaud them or believe in them or they’ll fade away and they make magic happen. Even flying!

So, it was appropriate that Director/Choreographer Roxie Quinn (and Tink) got the audience clapping before the curtains opened at Warner Theatre Stage Company’s “Peter Pan” to show them how to save injured fairies by believing.

It set the stage for a kid-friendly, interactive performance so that the audience knew what to do when the green light of Tinker Bell starts to die and Pan asks us if we believe in fairies.

If you’re looking for the Disney version of “Peter Pan” on stage, you might be disappointed because the theatrical version is very different in story line and music, sharing no songs. So, keep an open mind if you make it to the last matinee performance on Sunday. 

After seeing “Mary Poppins” Friday night at the Thomaston Opera House, I was excited to see a second night of actors being flown across the stage. There’s nothing more magic than that. It’s a challenge that causes some theater groups to shy away from doing the musical.  

Peter Pan (Erin Spector) entered with a leaping bound through the open window into the Darling household while sprinkling sparkly fairy dust. Spector was a natural in the air, gracefully extending her arms and legs as she was flown across the stage during several scenes from teaching the Darling children how to fly to a stage combat fight with Hook. 

Wendy (Kristen VanDerlyn), John (Alexander Bilodeau), Michael (Gavin Anderson) and Wendy’s daughter, Jane (Emma Kane) are also flown, though with more jerky movements as they learn to fly for the first time. Kane had to carefully maneuver around a set window when she was flown into a starry sky with Pan on her exit toward the end. 

Peter Pan is almost always played by a girl, dating back to English stage adaptations of the book in the early 1900s. Why a girl? According to slate.com, it’s because English law prohibited actors under 14 from working on stage after 9 p.m., so it became easier to cast a woman who could be made up to look like a young boy than to use a boy necessitating casting minors. Mary Martin carried on the tradition in the original Broadway cast. While Spector did not pass as a boy with her high-toned voice and soprano vibrato, she had a good look for Pan and was light on her feet to convey his youth. 

VanDerlyn, though in high school, had a youthful face perfect for Wendy Darling and the maturity to step into a “mother” role for the Lost Boys. Her bluntness and honesty challenge Peter’s conceit and her adoration for him is priceless, especially when she asks for a kiss and Pan thinks she wants a button. 

Hook’s (John Ozerhoski )pirate crew and Pan’s Lost Boys utilized the aisles for entrances and exits, not shying away from making eye contact with audience members or shaking hands. Having the pirates carry kicking and struggling Lost Boys and Darlings, most noticeably Michael, through the center aisle in the kidnapping scene brought the audience close to the action, drawing us in closer to the story than if that happened on stage. 

I actually almost auditioned for “Peter Pan,” but decided to take a summer vacation away from theater after several back-to-back shows. So, as I watched I was thinking about how much fun it would have been to be a pirate. The adult ensemble made up the pirate squad with some featured pirates like Noodler (Geoff Ruckdeschel), Starkey (Conrad Sienkiewicz), Cecco (Rebecca Pokorski) and Jukes (Scott R. Murphy). They weren’t your run of the mill “argh” and “shiver me timbers” pirates. While they may have scared some of the Lost Boys, the pirates provided a lot of comic relief as befuddled, clumsy, whimsical and musically inclined scallywags. 

Ozerhoski played Hook as a comical, flamboyant villain with insecurities that drive his vengefulness toward Pan as opposed to a simply sinister bad guy. He has more parallels with Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast” when he sings about how there is no better pirate swine than him. Smee (Richard McKenna ) is a dimwitted, fanboy, clown-like sidekick, much like Gaston’s LeFou. 

The parents have a much larger role in the play. Ozerhoski also plays Mr. Darling, banishing Nana (Theron Johnson) outside and allowing Pan in without anyone guarding the children. Mrs. Darling (Christy Olson) is the first one to see Peter Pan and captures Pan’s shadow, leading to a very humorous scene as Spector flinches and grunts when Wendy tries to sew it back on. She has a pivotal role toward the end regarding the fate of the Lost Boys.

Some of my favorite characters were ones that didn’t speak, including Nana the dog nurse, the crocodile that swallowed the clock that menaces Hook and a ballerina ostrich, all done with actors in costume. The crocodile’s slow stalk across the stage and Nana’s spontaneous wiggles and barks made me laugh in a good way. 

The “Indian ensemble,” led by Tiger Lilly (Lida Currier), is completely female, unlike the Disney movie that has male leadership. The dancers (Olivia Benson, Lauren Brown, Megan Dreher, Kelsey Morris and Lia Wallace) communicate through movement and chants.

 

Peter Pan refuses to go back to the real world because he never wants to grow up or age, it leaves you wondering if he gets a happy ending by himself. While he devotes his time to teaching the Lost Boys and the Darlings about the importance of staying children and not needing parents, he inadvertently heightens the Darlings’ understanding that you have to grow up eventually.

But why abandon your childhood spirit? We could all use a sprinkling of fairy dust to lift us up and keep the magic alive. 

“Peter Pan” is a three-act play with an intermission after the first act. 

Your last chance to see the show is Sunday at 2 p.m. More information on the show and buying tickets is available on the Warner Theatre’s website. The theater is located on 68 Main Street in Torrington. 

It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary at the Thomaston Opera House

The cast of "Mary Poppins" at the Thomaston Opera House. Credit: Lisa Cherrie Photography

The cast of “Mary Poppins” at the Thomaston Opera House. Credit: Lisa Cherrie Photography

Let’s go fly a kite…and maybe a few actors while we’re at it.

Landmark Community Theatre’s production of Disney’s “Mary Poppins” is defying gravity (I love that musical too, but that’s another story) with its use of harnesses to fly Mary Poppins (Katie Brunetto), to make Bert (Randy Ronco) walk up a wall and then upside-down along the ceiling while singing and, perhaps most daringly, to yank frightening nanny Miss Andrews (LaureAnn Price) out of the scene while the actress does back flips through the air after a confrontation with Mary.

The aerial elements added more dimension and excitement to the live stage performance at the Thomaston Opera House and that feat is something that makes many theater groups shy away from choosing “Mary Poppins” for a musical.

The flying didn’t happen when Mary Poppins first arrived, so for awhile I wondered if the cast would tackle that challenge. So when Mary eventually flew off with her parrot-head umbrella gracefully raised later in the first act, the audience reacted with surprise, awe and much applause, as they did each time an actor was lifted.

But even if the directing team hadn’t chosen to include the flying, the show itself would still have lifted the spirits of the audience with the energy of the acting from ensemble to leads, strong vocals and dynamic dance scenes from “It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary” to the big tap number, “Step in Time.”

Flying aside, one of the most magical parts of the set was Mary’s famous bag, resting on top of a toy chest that went into the floor, that contained items as large as a hat rack and lamp and as small as a measuring tape that tells her Michael (Ben Stone-Zelman) is a “noisy, mischievous and troublesome boy” and that Jane (Kathleen Green) is a “thoughtless, short-tempered and untidy” girl.

Before the show even began, as a first-time visitor to the opera house, I was taking in the beauty of the venue. Even though the space alone had enough ornamentation to please the eye, the set, from the fluidly moving pieces in scene transitions to the main structure, were all painted and decorated with high attention to detail.

The orchestra and organist provided pre-show entertainment playing songs like “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” During the show, they brought dynamic accompaniment to the melodious voices on stage, though sometimes overpowering the singers.

The costumes accented the set and story line with the contrast between the plain but proper black, white and neutral tones in the Banks’ and even sometimes Mary’s clothing to the colorful fabrics in the more imaginative scenes like Mrs. Corry’s (Tracy Funke) “talking shop” and “It’s a Jolly Holiday.” Mary transforms in her famous white dress, hat and parasol with red trim, showing her playful side beneath her proper, strict and confident demeanor.

The British accents were strong, validating the setting of the story.

Yet, Mary’s costumes aren’t overly flashy because she is not meant to upstage everyone around her. Her whimsical, mysterious ways bring magic to everyone around her as the story becomes more about how the people around her change for the better than about seeking attention, as much as she might describe herself as “almost perfect.” You start off the bigger dance sequences watching Brunetto’s Mary and then before you know it she’s gone as you’re watching the community of other characters she’s just helped and influenced. She quietly leaves those scenes as though she’s a guardian angel there to guide everyone around her.

Leading up to the show, I wasn’t sure about how the casting of a younger Mary would fit the story, having the film with Julie Andrews in the title role of the wise and witty mentor in mind. But Brunetto rose to Andrews’ elegance and poise as Mary with her maturity, precision, calculated imagination, glowing and knowing smiles and expressions, demanding yet kind demeanor, graceful dancing and sweet soprano.

Ronco as Bert, our trusty narrator, brings the goofiness of Dick Van Dyke and commanding tenor vocals to the role, even maintaining the same power in singing while hanging upside-down.

During moments in the initial staging of his sidewalk art, I would have liked to see visuals of his drawing from my seat in the balcony instead of a bare stage, however, maybe we were meant to use our imagination. We lose the animated dancing penguins and leaping carousel horses that the movie has, but gain talking, dancing toys and a living statue.

Through introducing Bert to Jane (Green) and Michael Banks (Stone-Zelman), Mary exposes them to raw humanity that breaks away class barriers, showing them that kindness to others and imagination should outweigh any tendencies of prejudice and class snobbery. Bert may be a filthy chimney sweep, but he has a pure heart and helps the children wipe away the troubles that stain what could be a happy family.

Bert (back left, Randy Ronco), Mary (back right, Katie Brunetto), Jane (front left, Kathleen Green) and Michael (front right, Ben Stone-Zelman). Credit: Lisa Cherrie Photography

Bert (back left, Randy Ronco), Mary (back right, Katie Brunetto), Jane (front left, Kathleen Green) and Michael (front right, Ben Stone-Zelman). Credit: Lisa Cherrie Photography

She shows children the same message as they walk by St. Paul’s Cathedral and see a poor woman devoting her time to selling bags of food to feed the birds as oppose to herself who is played by Paula Roll in a beautiful rendition of the heartwarming song, “Feed the Birds.” It would have been interesting to see birds flown in around her, fake or trained, or even as part of the set on her stoop, but imagination is a key part of “Mary Poppins,” so perhaps that was one of those moments the audience was left to picture and it was about the woman not the birds themselves.

Jessica Chabre added spunk and charm to the Banks’ household as the maid Mrs. Brill with her sarcastic quips to the children and to the butler (Daniel Dressel). Dressel played the parts of Robertson Ay, dancing statue Neleus, Valentine and the bank chairman and while you recognized him, he brought distinctive humor and character to each.

Green and Stone-Zelman made for a strong brother and sister duo with their chemistry. Stone-Zelman’s comedic timing was spit spot as he let his character’s youthful, mischievous personality shine with gusto in his dances and line delivery.

Jane (Kathleen Green) and Michael Banks (Ben Stone-Zelman). Credit: Lisa Cherrie Photography

Jane (Kathleen Green) and Michael Banks (Ben Stone-Zelman). Credit: Lisa Cherrie Photography

But as much as Mary Poppins arrives to meet the children’s wishes for the perfect nanny, she also is vital in helping the parents. Having seen “Saving Mr. Banks” within the past year, a movie about “Mary Poppins” author P. L. Travers as Disney pursues the movie rights to her book, I found myself watching the play from a much different perspective. Instead of instantly judging Mr. Banks (Peter Bard) as the stereotypical overbearing father, like I did watching the film version of “Mary Poppins” as a child, I tried to regard him with sympathy.

At first, I felt most sorry for Betsy Edwards’ Mrs. Banks, who is kind-hearted and wants the loving attention of Mr. Banks just as much of the children. It grows clear that the Banks adults come from more modest means. George Banks does everything he can to put that past behind him and strive for a wealthier status. Money and work becomes his primary obsession and he demands a nanny even though Mrs. Banks is always home and questions why they need one. Even though he tries to subdue her past theatrical passion, he forces her to play the role of “Mrs. Banks,” doing charity work and hosting (well, trying anyways) luncheons for “important” ladies.

Mr. Banks’ job title is a little more unclear in the stage version, though you know it has something to do with money and financing. Female ensemble members, donning black skirts, white-collared blouses and black ties represent the bank staff, whereas in the movie it’s men. That made Mr. Banks’ place of work less representative of the male’s role in the society of the story and more about him and the pressure he faces in a world that he believes values wealth over humanity. Though, in community theater it’s often hard to find enough men to participate, so that’s understandable.

There’s no doubt Bard’s Mr. Banks is cranky with no tolerance for nonsense (even though he claims he has no part in domestic decisions), but we see a turning point when Jane (Green) asks him what’s more important in business, the man or the idea and he chooses to finance an honorable person over a client with a money-making scheme. It looks like this will forever change his perspective until his boss suspends him for letting a money mogul slip away to a competitor, causing more inner turmoil as he strains to provide for his family and give them he feels he didn’t have growing up.

Then exit Mary Poppins and enter Mr. Banks’ sinister childhood nanny Miss Andrews (Price) to take her place as the children’s nanny, a character who’s in the book but not the Disney movie. Her sinister presence even sends Mr. Banks into hiding and her caged lark exemplifies the metaphorical prison she closes the children she’s caring for into, yet Price was still able to get a laugh in one of her intentionally shrill high notes in “Brimstone and Treacle.”

The “Brimstone and Treacle” of Miss Andrews instantly remind me of a witch’s brew and I could see a child with a wild imagination characterizing her as an evil sorceress. We never really solve the mystery of Mary and her ways. But having Miss Andrews as a villain brings out the manipulative and cunning strength of Mary Poppins from beneath the surface to make her even braver and tougher than we know her to be in the film with a dash of magic.

Having Miss Andrews in the story also makes Mr. Banks’ harshness more understandable. As Michael (Stone-Zelman) says, “that explains a lot” about Mr. Banks, saying a lot for the importance of the English nanny in shaping who children grow up to be. Mary Poppins may be stern, but she has values of kindness over Miss Andrews’ focus on class, which ultimately helps bring the family together.

Mary’s “spoonful of sugar” mindset as opposed to Miss Andrew’s bitter medicine approach of punishment ultimately wins out and wins our hearts.

Unlike many leads in musicals, Mary Poppins is not a character with a love story. The love story in the show is a different kind about a disjointed family trying to reconnect. When Mr. and Mrs. Banks kiss at the end, that’s the unexpected love story we witness, telling us the Banks family is going to be just fine.

The play was directed by James Donahue, who also appeared on stage flying a kite and in select scenes due to cast illnesses.

The Thomaston Operahouse is located on Main Street in Thomaston.

More information is available on www.landmarkcommunitytheatre.org.

CAST

Katie Brunetto…………………………………………………………… Mary Poppins
Randy Ronco…………………………………………………………………………….. Bert
Kathleen Green………………………………………………………………. Jane Banks
Ben Stone-Zelman………………………………………………………. Michael Banks
Peter Bard…………………………………………………………………….. Mr. Banks
Betsy Edwards………………………………………………………………. Mrs. Banks
Denise Milmerstadt………………………………………………………Katie Nanna
Connor Dunn………………………………………………………………….. Policeman, Von Hussler
Barbara Stolarik……………………………………………………………… Miss Lark, Queen Victoria, Bank Clerk
Jessica Chabre…………………………………………………………………. Mrs. Brill
Steve Sorriero ……………………………………………………………….. Admiral Boom, Northbrook
Brain Valletta………………………………………………………………. Park Keeper
Daniel Dressel……………………………………………………………..Robertson Ay, Neleus, Valentine, Chairman
Janis Clifton…………………………………………………………………Miss Smythe
Paula Roll…………………………………………………………………… Bird Woman, Messenger
Tracy Funke ………………………………………………………………… Mrs. Corry
Laura Busk………………………………………………………………………… Fannie
Nicole Thomas………………………………………………………… Glamorous Doll, Annie
LaureAnn Price…………………………………………………………. Miss Andrews
Featured Dancers – Laura Busk, Caitlin Barra, Amy Ferrarotti, Jennifer Spagnolo-Danise, Cassie A’Hearn, Ashley Almodovar, Tracy Funke, Crystal Harris
Bank Clerks- Doreen Lopez, Barbara Stolarik, Nicole Thomas, Denise Milmerstadt
Ensemble- Zach Katz, Brian Valletta, Janis Clifton, Nicole Thomas, Connor Dunn, Jessica
Chabre, Denise Milmerstadt, Paula Roll, Barbara Stolarik, Doreen Lopez, Daniel Dressel