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Entertainment & Arts

Review: ‘Fly,’ La Jolla Playhouse’s new musical about Peter Pan and Wendy, needs to grow up

Storm Lever, center, and ensemble in La Jolla Playhouse’s production of “Fly.”
Storm Lever, center, and ensemble in La Jolla Playhouse’s production of “Fly.”
(Kevin Berne)

“Fly,” the new musical based on J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel “Peter and Wendy,” is more interested in the girl who will gracefully mature than in the boy who adamantly refuses to grow up. But something gets in the way of her stirring story: a musical production that has little faith in the imagination of theatergoers.

Everything is dictated in such generically strident terms that for much of “Fly,” which opened Sunday at La Jolla Playhouse, I ducked for cover. The creative team, an exciting assemblage of adventurous talent, clearly isn’t interested in playing it safe. But a guiding vision is absent.

Playwright Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”) wrote the irreverent, Freudian-friendly book. He and Kirsten Childs (“The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin”) collaborated on the lyrics, which try to slip inside the characters’ damaged psyches.

Bill Sherman (who won a Tony for his orchestrations for “In the Heights”) composed the music. The Broadway-style rock blare induces a Pavlovian reaction in the audience by bullying theatergoers into believing that they’re having a good time despite all evidence to the contrary.

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The director is Jeffrey Seller, who is best known as the Tony-winning producer of “Rent,” “Avenue Q,” “In the Heights” and “Hamilton.” Seller’s theatrical acumen is legendary, but this genius hasn’t translated into his staging. “Fly” feels derivative in a way that had me wondering if I were watching a new installment of “Forbidden Broadway,” the lovingly clever parody show that in this accidental version seems a little too on the nose.

The tale’s traditional storybook charm is overrun by a cacophony that isn’t easy to sort out. Wendy (Storm Lever, one of the stars of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” another La Jolla Playhouse misfire) longs to visit the land her imagination can already see. But the manifestation of this world resembles a reptilian version of “The Lion King.”

Why, I wondered, is there a green lizard creeping around Wendy’s bedroom? And what are those swamp creatures dancing and singing with the determination of a “High School Musical” casting call? As it turns out, the lizard is a crocodile (Liisi LaFontaine) and those swamp creatures are trees. I’m not sure how long it was into the show when I finally figured this out, but the enlightenment didn’t enhance my pleasure.

“Calling to Me,” the murky opening number that had all the enchantment of a telemarketer intrusion, had me immediately wanting to hang up. When the noisiness subsides and Wendy and her widowed father (Eric Anderson) interact, a different kind of creepiness seeps in.

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Broadway producer Jeffrey Seller talks about directing a Peter Pan musical, plus what “Hamilton” fans can expect from that upcoming movie.

“Fly” wants to probe the psychological wounds of its characters, but the show is so afraid of silence and so committed to wisecracks that it’s impossible to take the interior lives of the characters all that seriously. Wendy doesn’t like to talk about the loss of her mother. Her father wants to talk about little else, even as his daughter assumes a caretaking role with him that seems almost spousal.

When Peter Pan (an appealing Lincoln Clauss) barges through Wendy’s window, the possibility of escape filled me with gratitude. By the time Tink (Isabelle McCalla) descends, however, I was a bit more ambivalent about the prospective journey.

Peter’s fairy companion is a vamping showgirl full of sass. Dangling on a pulley, she looks like she strayed in from a Caesars Palace extravaganza. Forced to remember what Peter, an amnesiac, is unable to recall, she looks after the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up with an affection that’s as queasily maternal as it is amorous.

The Oedipal dynamics kick into high gear with the Lost Boys, who plead with Wendy to tuck them into bed when she lands in Neverland. Hook (a flamboyant Anderson), Peter’s arch enemy, mourns his boyhood blankey and hopes to turn this lost little lass into what he bizarrely calls “a Momma Proxy.” Joseph’s smart-aleck comedy, compulsively exposing the scared and needy boy behind the bully, wears thin in places.

Visually, the production, unfolding on a bamboo jungle of a set by Anna Louizos, is not especially seductive. The aerial design by Pichón Baldinu (best known for his work with the Argentine troupe De la Guarda) is more acrobatic than magical. I was more impressed with how the actors stick their landings than in how they careen overhead.

Anderson’s Hook seems intent on giving Christian Borle’s Black Stache (from “Peter and the Starcatchers”) a run for his campy money. Hook is more of a Gilbert and Sullivan pirate, a farcical construction winking the audience into cahoots. Anderson is a dynamo, but I often felt as though I were being mugged for applause.

One of my favorite Peter Pan adaptations is Mabou Mines’ “Peter and Wendy,” in which the actress Karen Kandel brought the entire story to life through the ardency of her acting. What’s missing in “Fly” is trust in the power of storytelling to create images that can take flight inside the minds of audience members.

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Wendy’s big number in the second act, “Somewhere a Woman,” left me feeling nothing despite the beauty and power of Lever’s singing. But there are simple moments in the final stages of the character’s adventure when, alone with herself or quiet with Peter, the musical reveals a tenderness that ought to be more fully embraced in future productions.

“Fly” could use some of the maturity that Wendy comes to realize allows life to meaningfully soar.

'Fly'
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions); ends March 29

Tickets: Start at $25

Info: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)


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