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THEATER REVIEW : 'Peter Pan' Works Better Than Fairy Dust for Enchantment


Perhaps the best measure of a good production of "Peter Pan" is the open-mouthed, bedazzled children sitting in the theater.

By that gauge, the show at the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium is a hit. Concluding the 10th season of the Music Theatre of Southern California (formerly known as San Gabriel Civic Light Opera), "Peter Pan" blew away a large house of children and their parents. Even at nearly three hours, including two intermissions (one more than necessary), tykes in the audience remained wide-eyed and, even more amazing, stone-silent.

Of course, when Peter Pan (Susie Starr) wrapped up the show by flying high and fast over their heads, the crowd let out a whoop that must have gratified the immortal pixie, not to mention sidekick Tinker Bell. The two unaging stage personalities turn 90 years old this year.

Based on an episode in James M. Barrie's 1902 novel "The Little White Bird," "Peter Pan" opened on the London stage in 1904 and on Broadway in 1905. Since then "the boy who wouldn't grow up" has been played by such actresses as Elsa Lancaster, Maggie Smith, Marilyn Miller, Jean Arthur, Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan and most recently Cathy Rigby.

In San Gabriel, Susie Starr captures that childlike fairy dust an actress must suggest to personify a young, ageless boy who flies a Victorian family's three children to Never-Never-Land, where they encounter the bombastic Captain Hook and his obsequious pirates, not to mention Indians and a gaggle of Lost Boys.

Perhaps most amazing about Starr's performance is that she's a grandmother and first appeared as Peter Pan in the San Gabriel Civic's premiere season 10 years ago. Starr has cut her dark brown hair to a boyish trim, and her high voice, sterling vocal qualities and graceful body language perfectly express the apparition of dream wings.

But other elements keep the fantasy aloft: Crucial is Jamie Torcellini, who performs both Captain Hook's smarmy flunky pirate called Smee and the Victorian Darling family's big woolly house dog, Nana. In a dog suit, flopping around the children's fairy tale of a bedroom, Torcellini is hilarious, as much a character as the human-animated Snoopy in the stage show "Peanuts."

Featuring more than 40 cast members and 20 black tie-clad musicians in the sprawling orchestra pit, the production also sails under the dual role-playing of Michael G. Hawkins, who segues from a dapper Victorian father to the comically elitist Captain Hook. Hawkins' approach follows recent interpretations that view the unloved captain as psychologically maimed and deserving of some pity.

Goldilocked, blue-ribboned Heather Viau as the daughter Wendy who flies to Never-Never-Land and Kris Kennedy as her mother running around that big Victorian house also fuel the production, smoothly directed by Bill Shaw.

Especially fun are the buoyant flying numbers (with the silvery suspension cables noticeable but hardly intrusive), Peter Wolf's expansive original Broadway scenery and the animal actors, including Cynthia McIntosh's ostrich and Chris Straiter's crocodile.

* "Peter Pan," Music Theatre of Southern California, 320 S. Mission Drive, San Gabriel, Thursday through Saturday, 8:15 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2:15 p.m. Ends July 24. $18 to $30. (818) 308-2868. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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