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Roger Rees aims to revive magic of 'Peter Pan'

In 'Peter and the Starcatcher' at New York Theatre Workshop, co-director Rees takes the J.M. Barrie hero back to his theatrical roots.

March 30, 2011|By James C. Taylor, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Adam Grupper as Mal Beineke and Roger Rees as Gomez in the Broadway musical comedy "The Addams Family."
Adam Grupper as Mal Beineke and Roger Rees as Gomez in the Broadway musical… (Jeremy Daniel )

Reporting from New York — — Roger Rees and Peter Pan go way back.

The Welsh actor, director and impresario has been working on the current off-Broadway hit "Peter and the Starcatcher" for years, but his relationship with J.M. Barrie's fictional hero goes back almost 50 years.

"My first acquaintance with Peter Pan was back when I lived in South London," Rees recalls over breakfast on the city's Upper West Side. "I was at art school and I needed to earn money, so I got a job as a stagehand at the Wimbledon Theatre and 'Peter Pan' was on tour there with Donald Sinden, who was playing Captain Hook."

"I came face to face with this mythology," Rees says. "I've learned since that it's like Hamlet or Juliet. It's inside all of us, everyone owns it, everyone has an opinion about it — after all, there's a syndrome and a bus company named after it."

Rees and co-director Alex Timbers have mounted a decidedly low-tech Peter — there is no flying, the costumes look like hand-me-downs from a Victorian-era orphanage, and the set often consists of little more than a few trunks and ropes.

"Peter and the Starcatcher," which had an early production at the La Jolla Playhouse, may look more like Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" than "Mary Poppins." The Disney-commissioned play is a unique blend of avant-garde, burlesque and pop sensibilities, which has earned it some admiring reviews and an extended run, through April 24 at New York Theatre Workshop.

Meanwhile, Rees has a second role these days, this one on Broadway: He has taken over the character of Gomez Addams in the musical "The Addams Family," replacing Nathan Lane.

Rees is a more avuncular, less-manic father than Lane (who created the part) and says he's happy to be in what he calls "an old-fashioned, boulevard-style vaudeville." Part of the enjoyment of playing Gomez, he says, is that the part is so offbeat: "I've always thought like I'm really a 3-feet-high comic trapped in a leading man's body … but then I played Nicholas Nickleby and suddenly I was heroic."

It was Trevor Nunn's widely seen (and much heralded) 1980 production of "Nicholas Nickleby" that made Rees an in-demand actor both on London stages and in Hollywood. He's perhaps best known here for playing a British playboy on "Cheers" and the British ambassador in "The West Wing."

He forged a relationship with his current "Addams Family" costar, Bebe Neuwirth, on the long-running situation comedy. "We really got to know each other on 'Cheers.' There were great actors on the show, but they'd done it for like eight years by the time I got there. So rehearsal would be at 9:30 in the morning, and because Bebe and I were from the theater — and rather obedient — we'd be always there at 9:30, but no one else would come in until about 11:00. And so we'd always have an hour and a half to talk to each other, and that's how we became friends."

"Nickleby" also brought about another encounter with Peter Pan. "I'd been Trevor's leading man for seven years. And one drunken night, he said he was thinking of doing Peter Pan. He looked at me and said, 'You should play Peter Pan.'" Rees laughs, "And then he paused and said, 'But you're too old.'"

Nunn did adapt a version of "Peter Pan," but Peter was played by a young Mark Rylance. Rees saw it at London's Barbican Theatre, and it made an impression. "An actor played J.M. Barrie and he articulated the stage directions, which are delightful," Rees says. "It was a departure from the idea, which I liked. It wasn't obedient; it was neither the musical nor the original play."

These encounters lay the seeds for Rees' own version of "Peter Pan," which began to grow when his partner, Rick Elice, read the galleys for a prequel to "Peter Pan," a novel titled "Peter and the Starcatchers," written by humorist Dave Barry and author Ridley Pearson. "Rick suggested to Tom Schumacher [the president of Disney Theatrical Group], he said he thought Peter would make a good animated film," Rees explains, "and that's where it sat for a couple of years."

Elice eventually nudged Rees to read the book and suggested to Schumacher that, "because of 'Nicholas Nickleby' and the similarity of taking a classic work and using 'poor theater' techniques, I could communicate something, create a theater piece where the words are the scenery."

Rees staged a workshop of the book at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where he met Timbers, who was workshopping his own unconventional musical that summer, which would go on to become "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson."

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