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Theater review: 'Peter Pan'

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When Rochester's community theater scene is discussed, it's often focused on downtown and east of the city. But the lesser-known Roberts Wesleyan College Community Theatre has been producing annual shows since 1998 on the west side, drawing hundreds of audience members and cast hopefuls to their productions in North Chili. Through January 27, RWCCT presents "Peter Pan," the 1954 version of the Broadway musical that won a handful Tony Awards and starred Mary Martin in the title role.

When J.M. Barrie penned "Peter Pan," he could not have fathomed the endless reach of the story, or how many times his beloved Neverland characters would be re-interpreted. RWCCT stays largely faithful to the plot, with some variations on Tiger Lily and the Indians (here, they become "islanders," dressed in steampunk costumes), but most importantly, features a female (Kristen Emery) as Peter Pan. The ensemble is more than 40, many of them elementary and middle school-age children.

Emery plays a jovial, robust Peter Pan with a clear, strong voice and acting chops to pull off the gender-neutral role. Opposite her, John Caboot is a show-stealing Captain Hook, beginning with his brief appearance as Mr. Darling (it's traditional for the same actor to portray both). Caboot's ability to waver between egotistical pirate and whining coward is expert, and his musical numbers ("Hook's Waltz," Hook's Tarantella," "Oh, My Mysterious Lady") elicited the largest laughs of the night, aided by an enthusiastic pirate ensemble. As Hook's faithful sidekick Smee, Steve Valvano's antics also delighted the audience. Maya Simonetti (Wendy), who is actually in middle school, keeps up admirably with the older leads, playing a mature-beyond-her-years "mother" to the Lost Boys.

To artistic director Eric Traugott's credit, every member of the "Peter Pan" ensemble has created unique character identities (shout out to the pirate who imitated Jack Sparrow the entire time). British accents are always ambitious without a dialect coach, but several of the characters did pull them off (Caboot's was always flawless). Multiple fight scenes throughout the show manage to be exciting -- a difficult feat, especially with so many onstage -- due to fight choreography by Steve Vaughn

The set design by Marcia Stevens and backdrop art by Mike Volpe give the production a storybook quality, very traditional in nature. The Lost Boys' underground lair, in particular, is impressive with its slides, ladders, nooks, and crannies. Costumer Mary Farmer was tasked with garb for a massive ensemble, but toes an interpretive line between steampunk, period-appropriate, and imaginative. Hook's costume especially is a visual masterpiece. Lighting by Nate Clark guides the audience from nighttime in London to the greenery of Neverland, and "Tinkerbell" -- just a small spotlight in this production -- displays sass through movement alone.

RWCCT partnered with Vertigo, an Illinois-based, professional flying effects company headed by theater educators, to provide "pixie dust" for Peter and the Darling children. Throughout the show, there were murmured exclamations from the audience each time one of the characters leapt into the air like a marionette. Even though the rigging was usually visible, it truly made the story feel more magical and was executed quite well by all the actors who "flew."

Toward the end of the show, Hook yells at Peter Pan, "Pan, who and what art thou?" Peter Pan flies into the air and replies, "I'm youth, I'm joy -- I'm freedom!" This paraphrased quote from Barrie's original text sums up RWCCT's production precisely. "Peter Pan" isn't about technical perfection or professional-level performances (though there is much of both); but rather, an experience that reminds audiences that there is always youth, joy, and freedom to be celebrated.

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