BWW Reviews: Cross-dressing for Kids: HAIRSPRAY and PETER PAN in Hartford
A Musical Production of the Play by Sir James Barrie
Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh
Additional Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Music by Moose Charlap
Additional Music by Jule Styne
Directed by Glenn Casale
National Tour at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through November 27
Book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman
Directed by Ryan Ratelle
Hartford Children’s Theatre performing at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art’s Aetna Theater through November 27
Thanksgiving, a family holiday if ever there was one, found an odd confluence of shows playing in Hartford’s theaters. A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas commenced its annual run at Hartford Stage. Across Bushnell Park, the national tour of Peter Pan returned to The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. And right in between the two, the Hartford Children’s Theatre marked its return, after many years, to performing in the Aetna Theater at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. In a city of Hartford’s size, having three shows playing simultaneously is not such a big deal. What is noteworthy is that (a) they are all vying for a family audience, (b) they all feature showy star turns, and (c) they all, oddly, feature cross-dressing. For something normally labeled “alternative lifestyle” (a.k.a. things usually shunned by those who espouse “family values”), all three of these family shows feature noteworthy gender-swapped performances…and nobody ran out of the theatre covering their children’s eyes.
Now, I won’t spend time reviewing Hartford Stage’s noteworthy A Christmas Carol. Having arrived at Hartford Stage in 1998 with Artistic Director and adapter Michael Wilson, the production is still a sturdy, crowd-pleaser with Hartford’s favorite Ebenezer Scrooge, Bill Raymond, merrily mugging away after so many years. The transgendered twist occurs in the secondary roles of Jacob Marley’s and Scrooge’s chambermaid Mrs. Dilber. Returning to the role he originated in the production, Noble Shropshire returns as the sour maid and the dour ghost. When Scrooge flirts relentlessly with Dilber at the end of the play, it takes on an odd, and oddly entertaining, twist that elicits giggles from the audience.
In Cathy Rigby’s acclaimed production of Sir James Barrie’s musicalized Peter Pan, you have a double-drag in progress. Not only is Rigby a female playing a male, she is also an AARP-qualified woman playing a boy who refuses to grow up. With Rigby’s nuanced, indefatigable and acrobatic performance, one doesn’t much care as much as one buys her efforts lock, stock and barrel. Rigby’s tomboyish attitude and Broadway belt are a surprising mix, but they work beautifully and defy her age. Having played the role on and off for over two decades (including four stops on Broadway), one would expect maybe a bit of fatigue or formula to have taken over. There isn’t a whiff of it. I must admit that entering the theater, I was prepared to be dismissive of not only someone as old as Rigby playing the part, but I have never understood why the role has essentially been relegated to middle-aged women. Why not cast a boy to play a boy? One only need watch YouTube videos of Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan's performances to know that it is a woman playing the part. After seeing Rigby in the part, I feel she is welcome to be a boy until she is no longer capable of swooping, flipping and dazzling. If one is willing to suspend their belief so that fairies exist, pirates run from crocodiles, and English sheepdogs can be nannies, a retirement-aged female gymnast can be the eternal man-child.