If you have ever wanted to journey to “a place where dreams are born, and time is never planned,” just think lovely thoughts and fly to Greenfield Middle School for Christian Youth Theater (CYT) East County’s production of Peter Pan. A cast of more than 70 talented young thespians takes the stage four times next weekend as this delightful production continues for the second week of performances. But you’d best hurry because, like childhood, the show won’t last forever. In fact, Sunday, May 25, is already a sellout.
Peter Pan is the well-known and universally loved story by J.M. Barrie of the little boy who never grew up. The cast members range in age from eight to 18, with many having been involved with more than a dozen productions both on stage and behind the scenes. In CYT, in addition to the acting, all crew work – from moving scenery to handling lights and sound – is done by children under the direction of a team of dedicated adults. Those dedicated adults for this production of Peter Pan include Director Anton Fero, Assistant Director/Choreographer Courtney Fero and Musical Director Holly Abeel. The show also boasts a live orchestra.
“Everyone knows the story of Peter Pan,” said Courtney Fero before the Sunday performance, describing the challenges of staging the play. “It is one of the most difficult shows to put on its feet. There are so many aspects. The vocal score and what the orchestra plays is terribly difficult music. There are a lot of sets required so there’s a lot of weight on the crew. There are a lot of different parts and a lot of different groups in the cast – the Lost Boys, the Indians, the Pirates. So it’s not like you have your main characters and then your chorus that you can split up. It was a very difficult show to put together, but I think that’s why it’s so magical. It’s so specific, and everything has been thought out by the creators of the show.”
Over the years, CYT has produced a host of talented actors, many of whom have gone on to perform professionally around the country. Leading the cast is veteran actor Dallas Perry in the title role. While he has grown up to be a very talented and versatile actor, Dallas can still evoke those childhood and childish feelings that make Peter special. From his first turn on the stage in CYT East’s production of Annie Get Your Gun as a towheaded extra, through his first starring role as Jessie in A Bridge to Terabithia and more recently as the Cat in the Hat in Seussical the Musical, Dallas has become a true “jack of all trades” – as comfortable as a comic sidekick as he is in a leading part. This role is truly a dream role for him, and marks his final appearance with CYT as he graduates this year.
“In Kindergarten I saw my first stage production ever, which was Peter Pan at CYT Central at PB Middle School,” said Dallas during intermission of Sunday’s performance, “and I told my mom I wanted to do something like that when I grew up. She just thought it was a phase or something, and then after a couple of years I finally started doing CYT. Over the years I’ve grown to love it and I’m going to study it in college. Now it’s come full circle where I saw Peter Pan and now I am Peter Pan. It’s crazy to think how the years have flown.”
In fact, the show is a swan song for three of the West Hills High School students who appear in the show, with Cara Filley (Mrs. Darling/Ugh-a-Wug Indian) and Casey Edwards (Liza/Cecco) also graduating. Also making a final CYT appearance is Mission Bay High School senior Tierra Gonzalez, who plays the Indian princess Tiger Lilly.
This is Dallas’ second time appearing in Peter Pan, having played Twin 1 in the 2007 CYT East production. He had originally auditioned for the role of Michael and remembers being “heartbroken” when he did not get that part. But the magic of Neverland came through and it ended up being a wonderful experience nonetheless. In this performance his irrepressible energy shines through every moment he is on stage. As CYT East County Coordinator Tina Filley explained, “He is Peter Pan to us.”
While her role in the show as Mrs. Darling is minor in time on stage, Cara Filley puts a warmth and maturity into the part that helps to tie the beginning and end together. Her beautiful rendition of “Tender Shepherd” perfectly captures a mother’s love for her children and provides a counterpoint to the stricter Mr. Darling, played by Gabriel Bates. Her second role, as an Ugh-a-Wug Indian, is special as well, for a different reason.
“Being in Peter Pan is a dream come true,” said Cara. “This is my second time doing Peter Pan. The first time I was a Puff-a-Wuff Indian, and now I’ve moved on to Mrs. Darling and an Ugh-a-Wug Indian. Just being able to do one of my first shows as my last show is very sentimental to me.”
Another CYT East County performer who is appearing in her final show, Casey Edwards puts her all into the roles of Liza, the Darlings’ servant, and the pirate Cecco. Casey has created comic, over-the-top accents for each of the characters – a broad Irish-style accent for Liza and a hilarious Italian-like accent for Cecco. While the roles are minor, Casey admits that she is having major fun in the show.
“This is my very last show, and I couldn’t have picked a better show to end on because it’s just so much fun,” she said during Sunday’s intermission. “Everyone is having such a great time, the energy is through the roof, and we’ve all become best friends. It’s really a fantastic show to end on – it’s perfect.”
The fourth graduate, Tierra Gonzalez, is in her first East County production. She brings all the energy and physicality needed to the role of Tiger Lilly, which is primarily a dance and gymnastics role. From her first appearance on stage, you can feel the power in her performance, and you know that this is a special role for her.
“Tiger Lilly has been a dream role of mine probably since I was about nine or ten,” Tierra admitted, “and so for my last show to be one of my dream roles and someone I’ve watched on stage every time I’ve seen the show and wanted to do that, it was the most amazing feeling.”
Dream roles seem to be the norm for this production, and it’s no different for Cari Callen, who plays the young Wendy – spirited away to Neverland to be mother to Peter and the Lost Boys. She brings just the right mix of childishness and maturity to the role, still able to believe in magic and fairies, but beginning to think like a young woman.
“Wendy has always been my dream role since forever,” said Cari. “I grew up on Peter Pan – the story and the movie. When I found out I was so in shock it was ridiculous. I’m relishing every moment of it; it’s so fun.”
In addition to these strong performers, CYT’s Peter Pan boasts the talents of many other fine young actors, particularly Aaron Corbeil and Scotty Atienza as the pirate pair of Captain Hook and Mr. Smee. Aaron is a long-time veteran of CYT performances and has appeared as The Tin Man in Wizard of Oz and Horton in Suessical the Musical. His portrayal of the sinister pirate captain brings a new depth to his growing repertoire.
“It’s really fun and amazing,” Aaron admitted. “It’s interesting because I’ve never played a part like this before. I usually play a sad character like Horton or the Tin Man, and it’s really been fun playing this villain. I love it.”
While he is only 10 years old, Scotty has already shown his acting abilities as General Genghis Kahn Schmidt in Seussical and Gavroche in Young Actors’ Theater’s production of Les Miserables. The interplay between the towering Hook and his pint-sized first mate only adds to the hilarity of their scenes.
Spoiler Alert – if you don’t want to find out the “twist” in CYT’s production of Peter Pan, skip the next three paragraphs.
One new twist to the traditional staging of the play is the use of a live narrator rather than the voice-over narration normally employed. The choice came about quite unexpectedly, according to Fero, when they were faced with finding a role for one talented performer, West Hills sophomore and CYT veteran Shannon Prendergast. The decision was made to cast her as both Older Wendy and the Narrator and to merge the two roles so that Wendy is the one looking back and telling the story.
“Most people are familiar with a narration going on just audibly in the background between the scene changes,” Fero explained. “We found an actress that we wanted to have a place to put her but there wasn’t a place. We knew we wanted to have her for the Older Wendy, but we didn’t think about it going in. Sometimes when you have an actress it helps spark – how are we going to use this person? We just creatively took those narrations that are usually just a voice over and we tied it in. We gave little hints here and there of her being Older Wendy, but it’s not revealed until the end. It’s definitely a different choice that we made.”
“It’s a really good plot twist and it brings everything in the show back,” said Dallas of the casting decision. “It kind of takes the audience by surprise – they don’t know Wendy is telling it the whole time, and I think Shannon does a really good job delivering that magic and kind of being the voice of the audience.”
Asked why people should come to see the final performances of Peter Pan, cast members and director focused on the meaning of the show to audiences.
“I think all ages can enjoy this; it will take you on a journey,” said Fero. “The people who have been walking out of it this weekend have been pleasantly surprised at the caliber of what these kids are doing. They are extremely talented, and they tell the story well. It’s a beautiful retelling of the classic story that people won’t want to miss, especially if you love musicals.”
“Peter Pan is an important show for audiences because it kind of liberates that child side in everyone,” said Dallas. “I think it’s something that you fall in love with more and more every time you see it. It’s a beautiful story and it keeps audiences thinking about staying young.”
“I think the real heart and soul of Peter Pan is to know that it’s alright to be a grown up yet still have fun,” said Cari. “The future is fine, but do it with the right essence. It’s an amazing show; we have such a talented cast. There is so much talent on stage that it would be a shame to miss it.”
“I think people should come next weekend because this show is just full of youth and joy, and if you’re just looking for a good show and a good time, just come see it,” said Cara. “It’s so lively with music and dancing, and you’ll just feel young again.”
“It’s a great show and full of laughs,” said Casey. “The pirates are hilarious, the Indians are incredible dancers, all the Darling children are so sweet. Everyone is blowing away their part, and it’s just amazing.”
The final performances of CYT’s Peter Pan take place Friday, May 23, through Sunday, May 25, with the Sunday show a sellout. Tickets are still available for the 7:00 p.m. shows on Friday and Saturday and the 2:00 p.m. show on Saturday. Visit the CYT website to order tickets.
Disclosure: Shannon Prendergast is the author's daughter