Literature’s favorite lost boy sings again: That’s the good news emanating from London’s Royal Festival Hall, a concert venue that has given over the holiday period to the British stage premiere of a fresh musical take on “Peter Pan.” (The limited run was to end Jan. 12.) In the U.K., the airborne travels of the perennial adolescent remain principally associated with Scottish writer J.M. Barrie’s mournful and eternally moving 1920s play, while the U.S. tends to know the same tale best from the Broadway musical, now almost a half-century old. If the theater needs another singing “Peter” (itself a debatable point), impresarios could do a lot worse than pay heed to this one. Even when Ian Talbot’s rather heavy-going production remains stubbornly earthbound, George Stiles’ score and Anthony Drewe’s lyrics almost always soar.
The 1954 Broadway show has of late seen its very real musical virtues subordinated to a dizzying aerial feat, an appropriation that simply is not possible here. While James Gillan’s Peter does swoop down across the auditorium for the curtain call to send the tots in the audience out with a tingle, parents in the crowd may get their charge from a score that deserves a fuller, richer showcase for it to really fly. Surprise Olivier Award winners for their musical “Honk!,” which famously bested “The Lion King” to take the top prize, Stiles and Drewe need little introduction as one of the British musical’s premier composing teams (Stiles, working solo, is responsible for the shimmering original music for the Sam Mendes-helmed “Twelfth Night” that reaches New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music this week). And “Peter Pan” marks an apt intro to their work, the always tuneful score encompassing songs that are jazzy (a number for a sextet of kickboxing Lost Boys), funny (Captain Hook’s “When I Kill Peter Pan”), and rapturous (the choral finale to “Build a House for Wendy,” sung by Peter and the Lost Boys).
As lushly played by the Royal Philharmonic, the orchestra spread across Will Bowen’s spare if sprawling set, the numbers are collectively heard to best advantage, even if one might wish Gillan’s lower register had a shade more richness.
The Festival Hall doesn’t help focus the evening, a problem evident during last summer’s lamentable “Follies.” Though Bowen’s sets employ a clever above-the-stage scenic diorama to take us on Peter’s journey, there’s little getting around the problems posed by a staging that requires its cast to clamber around and among the musicians. A busily aerobicized Tiger Lily (Sinta Soekadar) seems to be auditioning for a road company version of “Charlie’s Angels,” while Tinkerbell resembles less a flickering green light than some visual Morse code run riot.
The cast, happily, is never less than professional, with Claire Moore and Lottie Mayor in particularly able voice as, respectively, Mrs. Darling and Wendy, that decidedly motherly daughter. (Remarking that “in an ideal world, it is always just past bedtime,” Mayor gets one of the better lines of Willis Hall’s occasionally prosaic book.) Making a rare appearance in musicals is Olivier Award winner David Bamber (“My Night With Reg”) as an enjoyably game Smee, his enthusiasm equaled and then surpassed by Gillan, who imparts a crucial sense of occasion. It’s to his credit that this Peter sidesteps smugness, which can’t be easy given lyrics exalting “the cleverness of me.”
The star role of Captain Hook — he of the missing right arm — is taken by English TV stalwart Richard Wilson (“One Foot in the Grave”), who isn’t half as arch in this role as many other Hooks I have seen. Given an entrance Dolly Levi would have loved in a predictably outre outfit courtesy Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, Wilson makes a glittering black-clad figure of fun. What child, regardless of age, could wish for anything more?