True confession: For many years, well into adulthood, I thought I was Peter Pan. I loved the idea of hanging out with Lost Boys and having adventures every day. Growing up was uninviting; I never wanted to be Wendy. I’d been hooked by the mid-1950s telecast of the Broadway musical, seeing Mary Martin fly as Peter Pan.
Now here comes “Fly,” a new Wendy-centered musical opening at La Jolla Playhouse Feb. 18, 2020. And it’s offering a whole new Pan-orama, with a re-imagined Wendy taking center stage.
Book-writer (and co-lyricist) Rajiv Joseph is a playwright best known for his Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” and “Guards at the Taj,” which had a controversial production at the Playhouse in 2016. (I loved it.) “Fly” is an offbeat take on J.M. Barrie’s “Peter and Wendy,” a 1911 novel that was the Scottish-born, London-based writer’s follow-up to his hugely successful 1904 play “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Never Grow Up.”
The director is Jeffrey Seller, who has had his successes as a producer — “Hamilton,” “In the Heights,” “Rent” and “Avenue Q.” “Fly” is truly his baby; almost a decade ago, he started putting together the team of Rajiv Joseph, composer Bill Sherman (a Tony-winner for his “In the Heights” orchestrations) and Obie-winning lyricist Kirsten Childs. “Fly” premiered in Dallas in 2016, but needed re-thinking. Now, the fully-revised show will be airborne in La Jolla — a West Coast premiere.
Four weeks into rehearsal, I had a chance to talk about “Fly” with Wendy, i.e. Storm Lever, a vibrant personality who’s no stranger to the Playhouse stage. She appeared here in “Freaky Friday,” and was one of the three Donnas in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.”
“I love that we’re challenging our audience to look at a familiar story in a different way,” she said. “All the other iterations focus on Peter; this one is Wendy’s coming-of-age story. She’s feisty, she has great instincts, but she doesn’t know her own strength. You get to watch her find her power as a woman, as a life force, as Mother Nature. She gets to experience the magical world of Neverland, but she also learns that growing up is a good thing.”
There are changes to the Barrie characters. This Wendy has no brothers, there’s no Tiger Lily — she’s now seen as an offensive caricature — and Captain Hook, played by Eric Anderson, is far from the “swiniest swine” I remember seeing on TV.
“He’s a kind of Cowardly Lion type,” Lever laughed. “He’s a threat, but he’s a father figure, too. You find out how he found himself in Neverland, and why we’re all in Neverland, what we’re running from.”
And then there’s the Crocodile, played by Liisi LaFontaine. “She’s the mother figure, the goddess of the island; she runs time, and the island, too,” Lever explained. “And she plays drums; she’s the island’s heartbeat.”
But Peter, played by Lincoln Clauss, is pretty much the Pan we know. “He’s a wonderful companion, I fall in love with him every time,” Lever said. “You can’t help it; he’s your first love. But he’s a child, they’re all children, and the pirates are grownup children.”
And what about Tinkerbell, played by Isabelle McCalla? Does the audience still get to clap to save her life?
“They will clap at this production,” Lever said. “But it won’t be to bring Tink back to life. There’s so much gorgeous singing, dancing and drumming, there’s sword-fighting and flying and all these professional make-believers onstage. It’s an incredible experience.”
• IF YOU GO: Experience Wendy’s journey and the magic of Neverland for yourself with “Fly” from Feb. 18-March 29, 2020 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, on the UC San Diego campus. Tickets: From $25. (858) 550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org
Peter and Barrie
Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up, first appeared as a character in “The Little White Bird,” a 1902 fantasy novel by Scottish-born author/playwright J.M. Barrie. Barrie followed up with a hit play on the London stage called “Peter Pan,” and an equally successful book titled “Peter and Wendy.” There have been dozens of Pan-inspired literary, theatrical and film productions ever since, including “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which started out at La Jolla Playhouse in 2009 and went on to Broadway.
Opening graf of J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’
“All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day, when she was 2 years old, she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are 2. Two is the beginning of the end.”