Perfecting Peter

Houston Ballet's Peter Pan pops with Broadway-style panache: fabulous lighting, over-the-top costumes and oversize, overgrown sets. But is this Andrew Lloyd Webber or is it the ballet? Ballet, definitely the ballet.

The production values and story line were taken from J.M. Barrie's 1911 tale about Peter and the Lost Boys, Wendy, Tinkerbell and, of course, Captain Hook. This original ballet by Trey McIntyre dazzled during its 2002 premiere, and in this year's show, the choreography shines. From Wendy's effortless pas de deux with her father to the climactic sword-fight scene, the dancing this time around is splendid. There are two reasons for this: First, McIntyre has gone back to the well that created his first full-length ballet and tweaked and tightened some of the ensemble pieces; and second, the company is looking better and more cohesive than ever.

New artistic director Stanton Welch's hand is apparent in both the makeup and the performance of this company. Peter Pan is a prime example of what a troupe should look like in a story ballet. There aren't any star standouts here; the performers inhabit their characters in a way that makes you forget who's dancing which role, allowing the viewer to revel in the story and the dancemaking.

You'll love Peter's temper tantrums, the children's antics and Hook's posturing, but look closely and you'll see that it's all fluid dancing, with one step either floating or bursting into the next. This ain't Sleeping Beauty -- there's no step, step, mime, dance here. The plot moves forward with pure dance that thrills without stopping the action. Wendy's nursery-room dance with the shadows -- dancers who move with her from behind a screen -- creates a flawless version of a young girl's dreams. The dancing shadows lift and fly her through the air in choreography reminiscent of Jerry Arpino's lyrical Round of Angels. And the aforementioned fight scene is one of the most athletic, modern uses of ballet yet seen on the Wortham stage.

And let's not forget the flying. Aerial dancing has been around, particularly in the modern dance world, for decades now. But McIntyre has made sure that the show's flying sequences do more than just look cool. Yes, children will love Peter's somersaults and stunts and the dizzying way he spins toward the ceiling in gyrations worthy of a champion ice skater. But once again, these scenes advance the story and dazzle the audience visually, all at the same time. (A side note: The strings are pulled by Flying by Foy, the folks responsible for the original Broadway Peter, as well as the flying in this summer's Olympics opening ceremony.)

All this isn't to say that the ballet couldn't stand a little more tweaking. The "redskins," the Indian tribe inhabiting Neverland, has been PC-ed right out of existence. They're now just so much weird red-colored set dressing. And the mermaids' dance, while quite beautiful in a traditional ballet sense, slows down the action.

But overall, the show is full of eye candy. Christina Giannelli's fabulous lighting turns the dancers into shadows and even flickering silent-film characters. Michael Curry's costume creations -- including Captain Hook's deformed giant claw, the nannies' daunting puppet heads and the evil alligator creeping across the stage -- delight young and old. And Thomas Boyd's pirate ships captivate in an eerie, storybook way.

As for the cast, Randy Herrera, playing Peter for the first time, captivates with his wild-child interpretation of the flame-headed leader of the Lost Boys. And Sara Webb, reprising her role as Wendy, looks just as comfortable being tossed about by Peter and the pirates as she does in her more poetic, dreamy, lyrical numbers. Barbara Bears's performance, with her moving interpretation of the Mother, proves why it's a good thing she's back from an early retirement. And Nicholas Leschke imparts an imposing physical presence to the Disney-esque Hook.

Also of note is Niel DePonte's brilliant arrangement of Sir Edward Elgar's music. Who knew the composer of the presidential Pomp & Circumstance could be such an integral part of a family ballet? The music helps the audience travel "second star to the right, and straight on till morning," right to the magical Neverland.

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Marene Gustin