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Flying high

Plus, there's something gory at Actors' Theatre

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Ever since Children's Theatre moved uptown into the ImaginOn complex, the company has cleaved faithfully to the custom of beginning their seasons with a huge splash at McColl Family Theatre, their larger space. This year, artistic director Alan Poindexter is aiming higher than ever, with the musical version of James M. Barrie's beloved Peter Pan.

Clocking in at a minute over two hours -- plus potty break -- this is not a version that panders to short attention spans. All of the fairy dust, all the high flying, and most of the songs are intact.

From his privileged view near the apex of the proscenium, I don't think Peter saw a single empty seat up in the balcony as he flew into the Darling townhouse for the first time. Nor from the totally positive, rapt response I detected throughout the show -- not a peep of complaint from the hordes of anklebiters -- would I suspect that any empty seats greeted Peter out over the orchestra on his final flight.

I suspect the Poindexter version will go down most deliciously with the younger generation and adults who somehow eluded the TV version that was once nearly as ubiquitous as MGM's Wizard of Oz. Not subscribing to the orthodoxy of Mary Martin (or the latter-day Cathy Rigby) in the title role, such innocents will not even blink when confronted with Nic Bryan as Pan. For those of us wet-nursed by the divine Mary -- one in a long line of actresses who have done the role since Maude Adams premiered it on Broadway in 1905 -- swallowing the young baritone may be as appealing as little Michael Darling's bedtime medicine.

Flying above the adorable Darlings and the evil pirates, Bryan does the signature frozen pirouette to a P. The transposition of "I've Got to Crow" works remarkably well, but those who remember "I'm Flying" and "Neverland" higher in the vocal stratosphere will likely feel let down. And real chemistry between Peter and Wendy when he warbles to her about the third star on the right? Sacrilege!

Nor is there sufficient imaginativeness elsewhere in the casting to compensate for the boyish Peter. Longtime company stalwarts Nicia Carla and Barbi Van Schaick are so fine in the pirate band that I wish one of them had been fitted with a hook. Jon Parker Douglas is never less than plausible as Mr. Darling, and he nicely calibrates -- and balances -- the menace of Captain Hook and his quivering cowardice. But there's not much visible mileage on the lad, so Darling's stuffiness and Hook's faggoty flamboyance remain on back order, conquering Bob Croghan's magnificent costuming.

Jayme Mellema's scenic design for Neverland doesn't completely fulfill the promise of her London rig and its starry backdrop, but there are nice technical innovations to the rescue. A misty floor and a trio of Mermaids enrich the exoticism at the start of Act 2, and the croc stalking Hook is delightfully outsized and mobile. We do sacrifice Peter's masquerade -- and coloratura -- along with Hook's fabulous "Oh My Mysterious Lady," but here we are amply compensated.

Drina Keen's musical direction and Ron Chisholm's choreography combine to unearth unsuspected possibilities in the amity between Indians and The Lost Boys, celebrated in "Ugg-a-Wugg (I Just Call for Tiger Lily)." Drums suddenly proliferate around the stage, and we're immersed in a primitive rhythmic orgy. Casting Bryan pays off best here as he fronts this showstopper with Caroline Bower as the princess Tiger Lily. Bower elegantly morphs into Mrs. Darling back on Earth.

Of course, the Children's Theatre kids onstage are at least as outstanding as the adults, with Amanda Roberge particularly impressive as Wendy and, up yonder, Jura Davis dominant as Slightly. Among the supporting adults, I most adored Matt Cosper, bumbling and bespectacled as the unctuous Smee.

Seats may vanish as the word of this dazzler spreads. If you sit close and clap hard for Tinkerbell, I'm sure you'll be rewarded. My wife Sue was picking the fairy glitter off me hours after we returned to the real world.

ACTORS' THEATRE is doing the gory tech of Martin McDonaugh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore with all the panache of their ImaginOn counterparts. I can also happily report that artistic director Chip Decker and his cast deliver every lick of the "Oyrish" comedy, with Craig Spradley and Ryan Stamey suitably drunken and dimwitted as Donny and Davey, hapless caretakers of Wee Thomas, the beloved cat whose "turn for the worse" brings terrorist Mad Padraic storming home for a fearsome reckoning.

Deep into Act 2, however, I couldn't help noticing that it was the guns onstage that were making my pulse race most and the pools of blood or crackling corpses that were grossing me out. Not the people.

We start out powerfully enough as Brett Gentile, portraying Padraic, is torturing a drug dealer, none other than Dave Blamy hanging upside-down like a carcass at a slaughterhouse. This notorious 12-minute scene seems to agonizingly afflict us for 20. Led by Robert Lee Simmons as Christy, the trio of IRA thugs who killed the cat are seething with menace as Padraic is lured into their net.

But when everyone converges on Donny's hovel, where brainiac Davey has imperfectly daubed a substitute orange cat with black shoe polish to dupe Padraic, Decker doesn't sufficiently rein in the buffoonery. We're still in cartoonland when Davey and Donny are kneeling before us with guns held to the backs of their skulls. I'd sober up in a hurry if my brains were about to splatter into the audience. Larry and Curly is not the way to go.

Still there's no denying that Kristy Morley has clicked onstage as aspiring terrorist Mairead, a triumph I never thought possible a year ago after her Heidi Chronicles. And you certainly do not want to miss how beautifully McDonaugh punctuates the pointlessness of all the terror and bloodshed you have witnessed from beginning to end. A pox on anyone who tells you that secret.

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