Stars on Ice
Kurt List

Peter Pan - Elgin Theatre, Toronto, ON - November 2007

written by Tina Tyan

Ross Petty's production of "Peter Pan - The Family Musical That's Silly. Very Silly!" marks Kurt Browning's first foray onto the theatrical stage, and as a musical theatre performer, no less. You'd be hard pressed to tell that it was Kurt's acting debut, however, from his ease and natural presence as a stage performer. He seems right at home "on the boards" and inhabits the character of Peter Pan like it was written for him. In the case of this show, in many ways, it was.

As "Nana the Dog" tells us in the introduction to the play, this is decidedly not J.M. Barrie's famous tale of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. The structure is the same - Peter comes to the London home of the Darling family and takes the three Darling children - Michael, John, and Wendy - to Neverland with him. There's magical flying fairy dust, there's Tinkerbell, there are Lost Boys, there's Peter's nemesis Captain Hook with his sidekick Smee, and there's Hook's bane, the crocodile. However, in this version of the story, Michael is an asthmatic, anxious bookworm who likes school, John is an avid gamer who gets a hand cramp playing "Grand Theft Elmo," Wendy is an aspiring pop star with an iPod full of songs and aspirations to be like Christina Aguilera, and Captain Hook plots to go to Hollywood and become a big movie star. The jokes fly fast and furious, aiming at everyone from the young children in the audience ("what's a pirate's favorite letter? arrrrrrr") to the current event and pop culture aware adults ("Hurry up, we've got to get to Hollywood soon, the writer's strike may end at any time."). There's something for everyone, and that something is very, very funny.

Photographer: Bruce Zinger. Image courtesy Ross Petty Productions
Adding to the charm of the show are the songs. "Peter Pan" is a musical, but a musical comprised of well-known pop songs rather than original songs. Kurt sings two songs - "It's Not Easy Being Green" and "Theme from Greatest American Hero (Believe It Or Not)" - and reveals himself to be a competent singer. He's never going to be a pop star, but he's clearly been working on his singing and has a nice natural style, and even projects his voice nicely on the longer notes. The placement of his songs in the show was wise, since the rest of the cast are very talented musical theater performers, and the contrast is minimized by leading off with Kurt's songs. The other songs in the show range from the Beach Boys to Queen to Aretha Franklin to Fantasia Barrino to the Pussycat Dolls and more. The cast are all wonderful singers, and these numbers were truly showstoppers.

What makes a panto particularly fun, and uniquely suited to Kurt's abilities, though, is its interactive and improvisational nature. The audience is encouraged to cheer the hero and boo the villain, and the actors feed off and wink at the audience. Ross Petty as Hook in particular picks up on things the audience shouts and spins them into jokes, but Kurt also does his part. Anyone who watches Kurt try to kill time during retakes for a skating show has a pretty good idea how good Kurt is at being off the cuff amusing, and he puts those skills to good use in the show. Whether he's playing off of Ross Petty's improvisations, turning technical mishaps into laughs, or winking into the audience, he's in his element. He often manages to wink at/draw the audience in while simultaneously maintaining his character's happy innocence. His delivery of both the scripted dialogue and his own improvised bits are equally natural and unforced, with great comic timing. The only thing that occasionally seems to step over the top at times are his exaggerated arm motions and facial expressions, but for the most part it works since the stage requires some exaggeration in body language and delivery.

Not just taking advantage of Kurt Browning's improvisational skills, his acting skills, his flying skills, or even his singing skills, this production of "Peter Pan" even takes advantage of his skating skills. There are a lot of in-jokes in this play for skating fans, with everyone from Elvis Stojko to Toller Cranston to Scott Hamilton getting name-checked in hilarious fashion, and all sorts of skating references and jokes thrown in. But even more than that, Kurt demonstrates once again that he's the master of anything strapped to the feet that can be called a skate. In "Stars on Ice" and "Snowden on Ice," he proved that he didn't need toe-picks to do some impressive footwork. In "Peter Pan," he proves he doesn't even need blades to lay down fancy footwork, spins, and even jumps - just a pair of inline skates and any available surface on a fairly small stage set. The inline skating tricks combined with sword-fighting, flying, and even a bit of pairs skating, result in a hilarious, highly entertaining piece that only Kurt could pull off. Words can't describe it - it has to be seen in person to get the full effect.

It should be emphasized, however, that the show's excellence is not simply due to Kurt Browning. They've assembled a very talented cast who are all fantastic singers and hilarious actors, who each bring a great deal to their roles on stage. Ross Petty, in his twelfth such panto, clearly revels in bringing the evil but hapless Hook to life, mixing witty asides with Hook's gloating plotting, playing to the audience and creating a villain that we love to hate. His chemistry with his good friend Kurt Browning is particularly fun, as the two clearly have a great time playing off of each other, trading insults and banter. One of the particular highlights of the show was Eddie Glen as Smee and Nana the Dog, one of the funniest performers in the cast with a terrific singing voice, hilarious characterization and delivery, and a wonderful energy to his performance. He also does one of the best ventriloquist dummy imitations I've ever seen.

The rest of the cast are all at the top of their game as well. The three Darling children are excellent. Meghan Hoople as Wendy has an incredible, powerful singing voice, and brings a sweet vulnerability on top of underlying strength to the role. Brandon Banks as Michael is a terrific tap dancer with a lovely boy soprano voice, while Matthew Del Bel Belluz brings an impish, thoroughly committed energy (and some serious dancing and singing skills of his own) to John. The three Lost Boys sound fantastic singing together, and are utterly hilarious in their respective roles - Steven Gallagher as the stoned surfer dude Chad, Larry Mannell as the hyper-energetic goofy Keef, and Geoffrey Tyler as temperamental Spanish chef Miguel. Jennifer Waiser is a sassy, confident Tinkerbell who makes a believable Queen Bee, while Kiri Etzkorn has the crisp confidence of a savvy businesswoman who is also a talented dancer as Tiger Lily.

Each of the pirates (who also were the fantastic backup dancers) give their characters a unique twist. Diana Coatsworth is a ditzy but eager Pirate Jenny (as well as the haughty Ashley Darling). Matthew Armet hilariously embodies the high strung (and high-pitched) nervous Pirate Tim, while Caden Douglas captures the winking corporate arrogance of his slick, Starbucks-drinking stockbroker Pirate Dave. Dani Jazzar as the stuffed Polly-toting, Slash-looking Pirate Long John Silver, Donnie MacPhee as the hapless Pirate Terry and breakdancing Crocodile, and Wilson Wong as the equally hapless Pirate Rick and Peter's Shadow all are fun to watch. Rounding out the cast are the three beautiful and multi-talented ladies who are equally at home shimmering and performing in tails as the Mermaids, and kung fu fighting and dancing as Tiger Lily's handmaidens - Lindsey Frazier, Julia Juhas, and Adele MacKenzie. The writing and choreography are excellent, the music arrangements wonderful, and the overall production just really well done. The jokes and fun moments are too numerous to list, and should be seen to be truly appreciated.

Overall, this was an excellent, skillfully put together production that makes for a highly enjoyable and entertaining night (or afternoon) out for all ages. Kids will love it for the songs, the fun characters, and the physical humor. Adults will appreciate the clever pop culture, political, and current event references. Kurt Browning fans can look forward to the skating in-jokes and seeing Kurt prove himself to be as comfortable and charismatic on stage as on the ice. And everyone should walk out with a smile on their faces.

"Peter Pan" runs through January 6, 2008 at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, ON. For more information, visit http://www.rosspetty.com.