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BWW Review: Out of the 'Flying PAN' and Into the TUNA Casserole

Whether it's fruitcake or eggnog, people love their traditions during the Holiday Season -- and you'd better not disappoint. Memphians are accustomed to cranky "Ebeneezer Scrooge" hoarding his coins at Theatre Memphis, and in midtown, we're resigned to A TUNA CHRISTMAS at Circuit and PETER PAN at Playhouse on the Square. Just last year, I had seen two -- yes, TWO -- productions of the latter: The version done live on NBC (with an off-center, almost "sleep walking" Christopher Walken as "Captain Hook") and the marvelous version directed and choreographed by Jordan Nichols and Travis Bradley at Playhouse. The Playhouse featured players were the unique Morgan Howard (as "Peter") and the versatile David Foster (as a "Jack Sparrow"-like "Hook"); they were alternating the roles with Carly Crawford and Bill Andrews. I am happy to report that I finally was able to see Ms. Crawford and Mr. Andrews assay those roles, and they were equally inspired casting choices (but more about that later).

This year, Courtney Oliver has recreated the direction and choreography, and she has brought her own lively touch to this enchanting production, thankfully recreating the original scenic design by Joe Ragey (the perfectly imagined children's bedroom, with the garland-festooned hearth and colorful panels -- and that great doghouse for the playful "Nana"; the exotic island of the Lost Boys; the pirate ship). If, as the Narrator states, there is "an eternal boy" in all of us, I'm as perfect a candidate as you're likely to find. After all, I have been a fan since the 1950's, when I first was entranced by a matronly Mary Martin, hoisted by wires that even Helen Keller might see (the black and white version, even; as well as the color remake of a few years later). After all, there's that evergreen score, with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, and hummable music by Mark Charlap and Jule Styne. I needed no "fairy dust" to partake in the "magic" taking place on stage during this afternoon's Saturday matinee, especially with a rainy, desultory alternative beyond the theatre.

Of course, most adults are familiar with the James Barrie original, and adults who are overly analytical might wince at some of the material. Why, for instance, can't there be a musical that finds the magic in becoming an adult, rather than clinging to childhood? Why must fathers in works like this (and MARY POPPINS) come across as stuffy, overbearing types? And why must the hand-wringing mothers "know their place"? But the captivated youngsters who offer vocal CPR to a fading Tinker Bell were happily ignorant of such questions -- no raised eyebrows there. Part of the joy of this afternoon's performance lay beyond the apron of the stage; the excited faces (and, at times, squeals) from the youngsters precluded any snarky doubts about such underlying concerns.

Carly Crawford (alternating with Brooke Papritz as "Peter") is an ideal lead. She is "all boy," and it's fun to watch her -- spiritedly bowing to, first, "Wendy"; then, "Jane"; having practically no need for wires as her "Peter" leaps and struts about the stage. The great Bill Andrews (he has the kind of imposing presence and stentorian delivery that can run the gamut from Shakespeare to ROCKY HORROR) is a crocodile-cringing villain, with only a touch of the fruitiness that the enjoyable Cyril Ritchard brought to the original telecasts. While Kim Sanders is corseted and crimped as the loving and wary "Mrs. Darling" (she also has the lovely "Tender Shepherd" to sing), her snaggle-toothed "Smee," with that swagger and that accent, are a 180-degree transformation; and Maggie Robinson's "Tiger Lily" stretches and prances and dazzles in her terpsichoric turns. As the Darling children, Cayley Nicole Smith is a sweetly sensible "Wendy"; Jake Hesselbein (alternating with Parker Hood), a top-hatted mini-version of his father; and golden-haired Michael James (alternating with Parker Mednikow), a spirited "Michael." The various Indians and Pirates have something in common: They're all expert singers and dancers. PETER's wires will remain attached through January 10.

While Ms. Oliver's cast members are practicing their London diction on the east side of Cooper Street, across the way at Circuit Playhouse, those able farceurs John Hemphill and Jonathan Christian are embodying the twenty or so denizens of Tuna, Texas, the third smallest town in that state. A TUNA CHRISTMAS is a follow-up to the enormously popular GREATER TUNA, conceived by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard as an affectionate send-up of character types whose necks are all varying shades of red. It's as if Andy Griffith and Don Knotts had morphed into all the characters of Mayberry -- only Texas-style. The plot here is as thin as the wire suspending Peter Pan: The town's annual Christmas Yard Display Contest (won the last fourteen years by Vera Carp, a financially scaled down, heavily accented version of Harriet McGibbon's "Mrs. Drysdale" on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES). However, a "Christmas Phantom" threatens to ruin the proceedings by vandalizing the yard displays -- not that any of this is essential to what is happening on stage. The thinly developed characters are lovable stereotypes; their very names induce eye-rolling and groans -- "Inita Goodwin," "Helen Bedd," and so forth.

The audiences giggling at this kind of sublime silliness aren't thirsting for Shakespeare. The zingers come at you like the jokes in the film AIRPLANE -- some work, some don't. Zipping along like the Roadrunner out of control, A TUNA CHRISTMAS benefits mightily from the two players. Mr. Hemphill has performed this before, and he has a history of working side-by-side with talented partners like Matt Reed and John Maness (most recently with the latter as one of the gangsters in KISS ME, KATE). He is a scene stealer par excellence -- and here he practically steals from himself. He is well-matched by the original Mr. Christian (so good as the looniest of Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS a while back). Moreover, some of Peter Pan's "fairy dust" must have been sprinkled on those costume changes. If you stop long enough between laughs to watch what is transpiring on stage, you might overlook the artistry that makes something like this seem so light. Directed with glee by Ann Marie Hall. (Those eye-popping, amusing costumes are by Ashley Peisher.) Through December 27th.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)