Standing outside a rehearsal hall, his Spokane Theatrical Group cast filing in, director and choreographer Troy Nickerson says it'll be obvious who's playing the title role in Peter Pan. Her name's Belinda Geren. "One look at her, and you'll know immediately why I cast her," he says. And it's true. Four-foot-ten, hair in a short bob, Geren achieves what seems almost impossible -- physically, she's better suited to the role than Mary Martin. And maybe even Cathy Rigby.
"I remember watching the Mary Martin version on TV when I was about four years old," she recalls, "and that moment when she comes through the window -- and I thought, 'I want to do that.' "
Fifteen years later, with Spokane Children's Theater, she got her wish; now, another 20 years further on, once again she'll be flying straight on till morning.
My jaw drops when she reveals that she's the mother of five sons ranging in age from 3 to 15. How does an adult woman impersonate a preadolescent boy? "I've picked up a lot from watching my kids. I've hauled out old family videos of my older kids from several years ago and studied them, just for the mannerisms. I take a little bit from all of them -- maybe a look, a laugh."
Why do adult women always get the cool part where you get to fly around? Mostly because of the acting -- and later, the singing -- requirements of Peter's role. The production history is complicated. James M. Barrie, a five-foot-tall Scot with an over-developed imagination and a mother-fixation, first mentioned Peter in his 1902 novel, The Little White Bird. Two years later, he turned the tale into a play called Peter Pan, or, The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. A 37-year-old woman created the role of Peter in that 1904 production; the tradition of adult females playing the part persisted for nearly half a century (and in England, all the way until 1982). Then the Disney movie lightened the sometimes dark mood of the original. The musical -- labored on between 1950-54 by the likes of Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and at least eight other lyricists and composers -- seems familiar to millions because Mary Martin soared seven times on national TV from 1955-73. It's that tape of the original Broadway production and Disney's animated feature that have formed most of our Peter-memories.
Nickerson seems to be forming some Peter-memories of his own right now. "It's all been fun," he laughs. "This has been like a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland show -- you know, 'Hey, kids! Let's put on a show!' " From a dance perspective, he says, "it's either all of one extreme or all of the other. What I mean is, on the one hand we have the pirates" -- here he breaks into a gallumphing march with exaggerated elbow-swings -- "very simple stuff, but then we have the Indians, who [in this production] are all very accomplished dancers. When we first land in Never-Never Land, for example, I've added a ballet with five little kids playing fairies." As for the set, "With Neverland, for the middle of the show, I've used lots of colors and gone in a little bit of a different direction from the way it's usually done -- very much a fantasy."
But the scenic element every Baby Boomer remembers is Mary Martin flying around on wires. How will STG achieve the effect of those Darling children swirling above the bedposts? Nickerson smiles. "We're bringing in Flying by Foy. They're a national company who actually did the flying apparatus for the Mary Martin version back in the '50s. They travel all over the country setting up the flying effect, mostly for Peter Pan shows, putting up this intricate structure, with lots of rigging and with harnesses. They'll come in on Sunday, and we have three hours with them." He grins like a conspirator: "I hear they're very secretive. They won't let you take photographs of their flying structure."
But all those logistics lie ahead. Right now, Nickerson is in a barren church hall, coaching his pirate crew through their first entrance. It takes a few minutes to coordinate all the "yo-ho, yo-ho" singing and hopping around. I'm reminded of how the play combines some rather dark themes with the comedy. The pirates actually growl that they, "massacre Indians and kill little boys." Yet they fall all over themselves while trying to capture one of those Lost Little Boys, and they seem pretty inept accosting poor Tiger Lily (Molly Allen). During rehearsal, there's a lot of playful and even child-like laughter. Nickerson jerks a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the supposedly bloodthirsty buccaneers: "They should be playing the Lost Boys."
This particular band of brigands is led by Patrick McHenry-Kroetch as the most famous of literary amputees, Captain James Hook. Like Geren, he too looks his part: tall, with dark features, able to convey menace. (As is traditional with the show, McHenry-Kroetch will also double in the role of Mr. Darling, the father of Wendy, John and Michael.) How does he explain the enduring appeal of the Disney movie?
"Oh, it's Peter saving the day. He's little and yet so powerful -- it plays into every little kid's fantasy." And like a lot of Disney features, Peter Pan appeals to both kids and their parents. "Hook uses very proper English -- he's very well educated," says McHenry-Kroetch. (Just like Mr. Darling, one might add.) So the wordplay is for the adults? "Yes, and the playful stuff is for the kids."
McHenry-Kroetch's daughters often come to his rehearsals. Doesn't that ruin the magic? "I usually play a nice guy," he notes, "so this is a bit of a switch for them. I can just see my four-year-old, Logan, trying to work it out for herself: "Now, you're nice, Daddy, but Captain Hook is mean."
Well, Hook does threaten "a holocaust of children." Thank goodness for the crocodile.
Let Logan struggle, as all little boys and girls do, with the boundary between reality and make-believe. For, to paraphrase Peter's lament over the death of the fairies, children know such a lot more today, and soon enough they don't believe at all.