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Sophistication and Childlike Wonder in Houston Ballet's Peter Pan

Houston Ballet Demi Soloist Aoi Fujiwara as Wendy and Principal Charles-Louis Yoshiyama as Peter Pan with Artists of Houston Ballet in Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan.
Houston Ballet Demi Soloist Aoi Fujiwara as Wendy and Principal Charles-Louis Yoshiyama as Peter Pan with Artists of Houston Ballet in Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
If you say you’ve never thought about what it’d be like to be a child again, or better yet, to be young forever, you’re probably lying. When you imagine it, as we know you do, you just might find yourself thinking of the world’s most famous child who refused to grow up, Peter Pan.

J.M. Barrie’s classic character has been seen in countless iterations since the early 1900s, but you’ve never seen him like you will in Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan, which opens the Houston Ballet’s latest season.

Peter Pan will be familiar to most. McIntyre drew from Barrie’s 1911 book, a novelization of his play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The three Darling children – Wendy (Aoi Fujiwara), John (Song Teng), and Michael (Yumiko Fukuda) – awaken one night to find Peter Pan and Tinkerbell in their room. Off they quickly go on an adventure to Neverland, where we encounter mermaids, Lost Boys, pirates, a crocodile, and Peter’s sworn enemy, Captain Hook (Chase O’Connell).

One key change worth noting is that Peter is actually one of the Darling children in this iteration. He was literally, though inadvertently, swept away as a baby by a nurse who was, well, sweeping the nursery. It’s an interesting wrinkle, because it means that we may be watching “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” choose not to grow up, maybe for the first time. It adds a sad layer as to why he’s drawn to the Darling home, and in his choice not to return. (On a less poignant note, this addition also makes it an interesting choice to have Peter dreamily face-planting after receiving a kiss on the cheek from Wendy. You know, because it’s his sister.)
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Houston Ballet Demi Soloist Aoi Fujiwara as Wendy and Principal Charles-Louis Yoshiyama as Peter Pan in Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
McIntyre’s conception of Peter Pan is that of a wild child, someone closer to Tarzan the Ape Man than Walt Disney’s famous 1953 version – and it works. Dressed in a loincloth seemingly made of moss or seaweed, Peter is grungy, with a mop of red hair not unlike Drop Dead Fred. He’s perfectly embodied by Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, who plays him with the arrogance (and athleticism) of youth and a playful, puckish sensibility. Yoshiyama and Fujiwara, who brings a sweet calmness as Wendy, play off each other brilliantly. Yoshiyama’s fascination with Wendy is palpable. The pair balance each other well while dancing; the grace and strength shown in the pas de deux in Act II and Act III are truly special.

O’Connell’s Captain Hook is both threatening and foppish, or as threatening as a man preoccupied with besting a child can be. He’s clearly jealous of Peter and the children, wanting their attention but settling for trying to dominate them instead. It’s most apparent in the way he poses and preens during a solo in Act III. McIntyre gives Hook a son, James, who is a lonely, sympathetic character who literally lives a colorless existence (meaning design-wise he’s literally black and white).

It should be said that McIntyre’s sense of movement is undeniable, as is the way it’s integrated into the story. One example is Tyler Donatelli’s Tinkerbell, who gets a solo seemingly illuminated by a candle against a sheet. It’s overall creative, from the shadow people (Neal Burks, Chandler Dalton, Riley McMurray, Naazir Muhammad, Saul Newport, and Aaron Daniel Sharratt) that play with and terrorize Wendy, to the fairies (Magnoly Batista, Jindallae Bernard, Jaci Doty, Danbi Kim, Zoe Lucich, Amelia Meissner, Estheysis Menendez, Jaclyn Oakley, Madison Russo, Alexandra Walton, and Chae Eun Yang) that seem to flit with the power of magical fairy dust, to the fluid motion of the merpeople (Ryo Kato, Soo Youn Cho, Mackenzie Richter, and Jacquelyn Long).

Then there’s the flying.
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Houston Ballet Principal Charles-Louis Yoshiyama as Peter Pan with Artists of Houston Ballet in Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Yes, of course, Peter and the Darling children take to the sky and it looks effortless. Peter flies across the stage – smiling, flipping, and smoothly sliding across the floor. Nowhere in the production is the sense of childlike wonder so infectious.

Maybe most importantly, McIntyre’s Peter Pan is a visual treat, one that boasts so many clever uses of lighting in particular. With the strobe lights and laser pointers, the shadow puppets and silhouettes, the flickering filmic effect and the way the whole theater seems to light up like a night sky, it’s easy to wonder if lighting designer Christina R. Giannelli pulled out every trick in her playbook. The sets Giannelli is lighting are no less impressive.

Created by scenic designer Thomas Boyd, the sets are overwhelming in scale, bright and colorful. The children, like Peter and the fairies, are situated as closer to the natural world, shown by the clear view of the garden through the five panels that make up the wall of their bedroom and the greenery that adorns their beds.

The world of Neverland is populated by many interesting designs, including lovely silk fish and creatures called Beasts, piles of colorful fringe that would make Sid and Marty Krofft proud. Curiously, and potentially problematically, Karina González and Syvert Lorenz Garcia, who dance a spirited pas de deux, are grouped in with the Beasts on the cast list. It’s potentially problematic because Garcia wears two feathers on his head, and it’s unclear if their characters are intentional allusions to Peter Pan’s Native characters which, thankfully, are missing – at least overtly – from McIntyre’s story.
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Houston Ballet Principal Karina González and Demi Soloist Syvert Lorenz Garcia with Artists of Houston Ballet in Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Speaking of the Beasts, it’s a good time to bring up the score, a patchwork of pieces by Sir Edward Elgar, Frankensteined together by Niel DePonte. Conductor Ermanno Florio skillfully leads the Houston Ballet Orchestra through the music, which is often utilized to great effect, particularly during Peter and Wendy’s pas de deux in Act II and Peter and Hook’s swashbuckling antics in Act III. But to ask the audience to disassociate Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” Op. 39: March, No. 1 in D from its modern usage proves to be too much. As one woman loudly whispered, “Are they graduating high school?” It doesn’t really help that, at first glance, part of Syvert Lorenz Garcia’s costume resembles a football jersey numbered 00. At least it does to this Texas-born critic, whose high school unfortunately shared the exact same colors.

Overall, however, Jeanne Button’s costumes with additional design by McIntyre, are spot on. From Peter’s loincloth and Wendy’s delicate gown to John’s tell-tale bowler hat and Michael’s playful aviator goggles, from Hook’s dapper ensemble to the Lost Boys (as well as the Pirates) looking as if they are costumed in pieces collected from the Island of Unwanted Clothes, the choices feel inarguable. But the standout character designs are those of the adults.

The first adults we meet in McIntyre’s world are the nurses, played by Griffin Koehl, Augustin Lehner, and Ryan Williams. The nurses are intimidating figures, with harsh masks and black capes. They look more like Macbeth’s three witches than people you’d want taking care if your children. It’s clear the stylized take on the adults is intentional as we meet the Darling parents (Connor Walsh and Jessica Collado) and their family’s nursemaid, Liza (Natalie Varnum).
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Houston Ballet Demi Soloist Aoi Fujiwara as Wendy with Artists of Houston Ballet in Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Though less scary than the nurses, they are also wearing masks straight out of The Twilight Zone. What makes these characters less scary is their ultimate benevolence, which helps the audience understand what exactly it is that Wendy and her brothers miss while away in Neverland.

It’s inevitable that Wendy and her brothers will go home, but it leads to an ending that is unexpectedly poignant, made all the more so by Fujiwara’s sentimental solo.

As Wendy appears at the end framed in a photo with her own family (a husband at her side and a baby in her arms), she wears no mask. I’d like to think this means that her experience with Peter has led her to retain some of that youthfulness that would have otherwise been hidden behind a mask.

McIntyre’s Peter Pan is not a children’s ballet but like the best works of art made for children, the ones that get passed down generation after generation, it embraces the wonder of childhood while acknowledging the fear that comes along with growing up. It’s a joyful ballet to experience as an adult, but it may be something even more special for kids. As a little girl in a pretty blue dress and matching bow said on the way out of the theater, “It was so beautiful, Mommy. It was so beautiful.” And it was.

Performances continue through September 18 at 7:30 p.m. September 10, 16 and 17; and 2 p.m. September 11, 17 and 18 at the Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $25-$220.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.