Peter Pan never grows up — but the musical that bears his name is well into old age.
This year marks the 110th anniversary of the debut of J.M. Barrie's original play and the 60th anniversary of the award-winning Broadway musical.
And at South Coast Repertory's Theatre Conservatory, director Hisa Takakuwa has chosen to direct student actors from the conservatory's youth acting program — they are known as the Summer Players — in a rendition of the play.
"We always try to choose something challenging for students and something family-friendly," she said. "We want to tell the story from the point of view related to childhood."
The play has been the subject of many musical adaptations, particularly the 1954 version starring Mary Martin as Peter and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. Both stars earned Tony Awards for their performances. The show was sold to NBC for telecasts in 1955, 1956 and 1960 with the same actors.
Last January, NBC announced that a production of "Peter Pan Live!" will be broadcast Dec. 4 as its follow-up to "The Sound Of Music Live!" The network's new staging will star "Girls" actress Allison Williams in the title role.
Meanwhile, the current Orange County adaptation of "Peter Pan" will open Saturday on the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory.
After months of preparation, the young actors, ranging in age from 9 to 20, will bring the story to life with musical direction by Erin McNally. Each student auditioned for a role in the annual production after at least a year in the conservatory.
Even with a cast of 37, many of them novices, Takakuwa isn't daunted.
Sixteen are new faces who never have performed in a Players show. Six are graduates of the program and are returning to the stage while pursuing their college degrees or preparing to head to college in the fall.
"The best thing is that we are able to grow in acting because they treat us like real actors," said Shane Iverson, a senior at Woodbridge High School in Irvine who will play Wendy Darling. "For me, I have evolved, and I feel like I'm doing good work."
'It has been so rewarding'
On the first day of rehearsal, the young actors gathered in SCR's Nicholas Studio. Although they had auditioned together in the spring, many of them hadn't seen each other for months. Old friends and new friends congratulated each other and assembled onstage. It was the first day the group would read and sing through the script together.
Sounds of "Never Never Land" and Captain Hook's "Pirate Song" wafted down the halls. During breaks, the cast members recited songs in the lobby, on the terrace and through the hallways. McNally wanted students to make use of downtime by practicing and improving their vocals.
After three days of singing, the cast met with Takakuwa for a full rehearsal.
But first, each cast member had to explore his or her character. Takakuwa instructed each actor to choose three words that best described the character being portrayed. Actors were to write in their play books, noting anything from how they felt about a particular scene to a character's traits.
After four weeks of intense practice, the group of pirates, the Darling family, Lost Boys and Indians played out their roles, this time feeling more comfortable in them.
"It was more difficult than I thought," Iverson said. "But I learned so much, and it has been so rewarding."
Takakuwa, who has served as director since 2005, knows what it takes to put on a show, from costumes to sets to stage management. As a classically trained actor, director and educator, she has appeared in 14 seasons of "A Christmas Carol" and directed past Players productions of "Cinderella," "Seussical," "Annie" and "Into the Woods."
Though she has not personally directed any actors who have gone on to stardom, she said the program has two graduates who now appear on Broadway.
Nicole Parker, an Emmy Award-winning actress known for the comedy show "MADtv" and her run as leading lady Elphaba in the Broadway production of "Wicked," performed as a child at SCR. Allison Case, a drama alumna of UC Irvine who played roles in "Hair" and "Mamma Mia!" on Broadway, also acted in SCR's professional conservatory.
Takakuwa says the workshop is a place where a shy person trains to express himself or herself, an aspiring singer develops voice and a child actor hones stage presence.
Though she enjoys watching her students' progress, Takakuwa said her favorite part of the workshop is knowing that students are obtaining life lessons in an artistic setting.
Her goal is not only teaching students how to create characters, but also encouraging them to be passionate and assured in their own abilities — whether they are destined for an acting career or not.
"We want students challenged as a group and individually," she said. "We teach them that whatever they want to do in life, they should do it all out with confidence and bravery."
If You Go
What: "Peter Pan"
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 1 and 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from Aug. 9 through 17; also 7 p.m. Aug. 15
Cost: $16 for adults, $13 for children
Information: (714) 708-5555 and scr.org