Theater: Flying high

Mountain Play's 'Peter Pan' whisks audiences to Neverland

by Charles Brousse

Every Sunday through June 21, Peter and Wendy are making regularly scheduled flights from the top of Mt. Tamalpais to a far-off destination called Neverland. Back in Marin, the weather (at least, as of this writing) is stuck in its familiar late spring/early summer morning-fog-followed-by-afternoon-sun rut. Yellow school buses on extra-hours duty are discharging excited passengers carrying edibles and drinkables at the entrance to Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre.

In case you haven’t caught on, it’s Mountain Play time, and this year’s attraction is the essence of family entertainment: Peter Pan.

For the past 103 years, there has been a rite of spring celebration on Mt. Tam. When the Mountain Play series began in 1913, it was a gathering of Mill Valley residents in a grassy natural bowl near the summit. They picnicked, chatted with neighbors and entertained each other with impromptu performances of music, poetry and drama. After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps converted the site into a classic Greek-style amphitheatre in the 1930s, the entertainment portion became more organized—often featuring rehearsed original scripts based on real or imagined local native legends—but the feeling of community continued. Today, its unique setting and entertaining productions of popular Broadway musicals have turned what was once a very modest local event into a genuine regional attraction. That sense of drawing the tribes together for “a day on the mountain” is almost as important as the performance itself.

Turning to the business at hand, let me begin with a caveat. I was part of a small audience that included members of the working press at Peter Pan’s one and only preview, the Saturday before opening day. That’s tempting fate. Anything can happen, particularly for a show that is technically complex and depends on coordinating a 34-member cast with varying levels of experience, a half-dozen designers and a 17-member orchestra. Guest stage director Michael Schwartz, veteran music director Debra Chambliss and choreographer Nicole Helfer deserve full credit for pulling it together into a relatively seamless whole without the adjustments that additional previews would have made possible. To be sure, there were a few stumbles and falls—like the on-stage action during the overture that had the Darling family’s three children seemingly trying to fill the time with aimless movements—but my impression coming away was that this was a production that would mature very quickly.

On the positive side, the centerpiece of any Peter Pan production—Wendy and Peter flying—was ingeniously accomplished by using cables that were suspended from overhead girders and manipulated by some of the heavier cast members who jumped off a platform (in full view of the audience) while holding the lift ropes. Melissa WolfKlain (Peter Pan) sings and dances with an exuberant energy that seems to have an infectious effect on her fellow performers. Although Jeff Wiesen’s Captain Hook, Peter’s pirate nemesis, is more comical than menacing, the result is amusing and probably in keeping with the spirit of the musical comedy adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s children’s classic by a gaggle of Broadway regulars—Moose Charlap, Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne.

In fact, I suspect that they wanted to widen its family appeal by downplaying Barrie’s concern about the Victorian model of parent-child relations and the central question he poses about whether the Faustian bargain Peter offers his “lost boys”—avoid the vexations of adulthood and achieve immortality by remaining in Neverland as a permanent child—is worth the price of not experiencing the joys and sorrows of being truly human. Those are weighty subjects that thoughtful parents might consider exploring with their offspring on the way back down the mountain.

Finally, BREAKING NEWS!!! [Drum roll, please!] Next year’s Mountain Play will be West Side Story, a masterful collaboration by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. I can’t wait.

Charles Brousse can be reached at [email protected]

NOW PLAYING: Peter Pan runs through June 21 in the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mt. Tamalpais State Park, Mill Valley. For more information, call 415/383-1100, or visit


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