It’s off to Neverland at HHS

HARRISON —

Patrons of the arts had better brace themselves for something different at the upcoming Harrison High School production of the musical “Peter Pan,” which runs March 17, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. in the HHS auditorium.

It’s definitely not your grandfather’s “Peter Pan.”

Director Colin Shields has come up with idea of student actors manipulating and voicing life-size puppets – they really look more like mannequins – for the six “Lost Boys” characters and several others.

As you may remember, the play, created by Sir J.M. Barrie, tells the story of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up,” as the author describes him, and who spends his childhood on the island, Neverland, as the leader of his gang, the Lost Boys, interacting with both real and imagined beings.

For Shields, there were elements of the Barrie play that begged for further exploration. “I find parts of the libretto are strange,” he said. “Like using a dog [Nana] as the nurse for the Darling children. “I’m trying to embrace the strangeness.”

It marks the first time that HHS audiences will see Pan brought to the stage and, as explained by producer Matthew J. Boryszewski, that’s because, “we wanted to select something a little more challenging” and also different in tone.

“Two years ago, we put on ‘Sweeney Todd,’ which was pretty dark,” he said. “And last year we had ‘The Addams Family,’ which was creepy dark. So this year, we’re changing it up to make the mood lighter.”

And there are those puppets.

Plus, other challenges. Like the fact that Peter Pan becomes airborne at times. “But we have no fly system backstage,” Boryszewski points out. Still, Peter will fly – with the aid of “some smoke and mirrors.”

And there are a lot of scene changes so the crew has built – and will be operating – a large movable platform that will “transform the set from the Darling children’s bedroom and nursery to Neverland to a pirate ship and so on,” he said.

“Colin has incorporated a lot of pulleys and ropes to fly in and out moveable prop pieces that attach and re-attach,” Boryszewski added.

To simulate Tinker Bell’s sprinkling of fairy dust, technical director Frank Cappelle is designing an LED lighting system to create the illusion in a very dazzling way, according to the producer.

Back to the puppets. In the fictional world Barrie has created, Shields said, the Lost Boys are castaways, left to fend for themselves on a faraway island, picking up scraps along the beach. From there, he said, it’s just a short leap to the concept of the boys as “junk puppets washed ashore on Neverland.”

Each of the puppets is fabricated from PVC, foam, old metal dishes and light reflectors and each of their heads will bear a screen imprint of the face of the actor anchored to it by a shoulder brace.

During the initial stages of rehearsal, actors have been practicing with their puppets in front of a mirror to help them synchronize their dialogue and singing with the puppets’ movements.

Former longtime HHS musical director Mary Pat Shields is helping costume the actors. “We’ll rent a ball gown,” Colin Shields said, “but for everything else, we’ve been going to thrift shops and fabric warehouses to find things for the cast [of 25] and the puppets.”

Behind the scenes, the 20-member student crew has also been busy, helping assemble sets, preparing props and running through tech-related drills.

As for the music, Boryszewski said the original intent was to assemble a pit orchestra but a shortened rehearsal period due to an early Easter holiday recess prompted the production staff to use recorded digital tracks provided by The MT Pit LLC.

Budget for the show will likely run between $6,000 and $7,000, Boryszewski said. The money will come from fundraisers, ticket sales and advertising in the program, he said. The Board of Education pays for the rights.

Another surprise of sorts that the production offers is the fact that the student cast in the lead role of Peter Pan is a fresh face – a ninth-grader making her first-ever stage appearance.

She is Andrea DeOliveira, an honors student, who was cast from among some 10 students who auditioned for the role.

Also among the featured performers are senior Flavio Escalante, who plays Mr. Darling and Captain Hook; and junior Karla Vasquez in the role of Wendy Darling, Peter Pan’s love interest.

Flavio was seen previously in HHS productions as Uncle Fester in “The Addams Family,” as Beadle Bamford in “Sweeney Todd” and a member of the Ensemble in “Once on this Island.” Flavio sings with the HHS Choir and the Blue Notes.

“It’s hard transitioning into a different kind of character, from Mr. Darling to Captain Hook,” Flavio said. “I have to be menacing but funny.” For guidance, he’s been watching telecasts of the show featuring Mary Martin in 1962 and a more recent NBC version starring Allison Williams.

Karla is also known to HHS audiences: she played Wednesday Addams in “The Addams Family” and was Johanna in “Sweeney Todd.” She’s also in the HHS Choir and plays a vital role on the Junior Class Prom Committee.

Tickets to the show are $5 for students and senior citizens; $10 for adults. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance at the HHS main office.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.