BOSTON — Sir James M. Barrie's indomitable "Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" has itself defied the laws of time for nearly a century. Written as part of a novel in 1902, turned into a play in London two years later, then transformed into a musical in 1954, "Peter Pan" has an enduring appeal that plucks the heartstrings of all but the most crustily cynical.
For children, the story of the feisty young boy, his magical powers, and his death-defying adventures plays on that youthful sense that childhood surely will never really end. For adults, the play's central issues of abandonment and lost innocence drive home the point that childhood in fact ends all too soon. The beauty of it is that it delivers this message while brilliantly tapping whatever vestige of inner child still remains in all of us. It's a sharp double-edged sword that makes us laugh with delight while breaking our hearts at the same time.
The latest revival of "Peter Pan" to hit the road is a dynamite production starring the former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby. The production, viewed in Boston, is on a year-plus tour, opening on Broadway the day after Thanksgiving for the 1998 holiday season.
Directed by Glenn Casale, the production sports new sets by John Iacovelli, new choreography by Patti Colombo, and fresh musical arrangements by Craig Barna that reinvigorate the familiar musical.
But the real star, of course, is Rigby, who reprises the role that won her a Tony Award nomination in 1991's 35th-anniversary revival of the musical. Though she is a 20-year veteran of stage and screen and the mother of four kids, her Peter Pan is ageless. She portrays the young scamp with a brash boyishness, frequently swiping a sniffly nose and cackling a wizened little laugh that betrays the slightest note of bitterness.
And as one would expect of an award-winning gymnast, she gives Peter tremendous physicality, from her explosive entrance swooping in through the Darling family's window to any number of little tumbling and climbing stunts.
The rest of the cast is uniformly solid. Paul Schoeffler gives a delightfully over-the-top performance in his two roles: His Mr. Darling is full of good-natured bluster and pomposity, and his Captain Hook spews and spits lines with venomous fury - at least when he's not mincing and primping through a charmingly daft pirate tango or songs such as "A Princely Scheme." The diminutive Michael Nostrand is wonderfully sniveling as Mr. Smee, and Elisa Sagardia makes an ingenuous Wendy.
Casale's direction is clever and well paced. Colombo's choreography is lively and engaging, though not especially imaginative. But the nearly full-cast "Ugg-a-Wugg" proved the evening's show stopper, evolving to a terrific drumming sequence with Indians and Lost Boys alike rhythmically pounding sticks on the floor.
Iacovelli's sets range from the dark pastel pinks, purples, and blues of the Victorian nursery to the eerie, dimly lit lagoon sequence. Perhaps best of all is the simple night sky that provides the luminous backdrop for the children's journey to Neverland.
* For tour dates, see www.peter-pan.com