We had a fun time in the KSMU studio this morning attempting to keep control of a live interview with the director and two (adult) actors from Springfield Little Theatre’s season-opening production of the classic, Tony-winning musical Peter Pan: director Andy Willadsen, and actors Jeff Jenkins (the pirate Smee) and Aaron Campbell (in the dual role of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook).
One point all three wanted to make sure we mention is the excellence of the young woman playing the title role, Aryn Bohannan. Says Jeff Jenkins, “She blew me away. I’ve been doing this (acting) a long time here in Springfield and a lot of different places. And she’s one of the most pure talents I’ve ever seen. Her voice—the purity of the voice and the control. And she’s a great actress. And she’s a gymnast, and Andy uses that in the choreography. She does a handstand, and walks—on her hands—and sings. And Andy says to me, ‘Jeff, can you just come up the stairs without sweating and wheezing?’” Adds Andy Willadsen, “We all have our strengths.” Jeff: “Mine is stair-climbing!”
Andy says he was “thrilled to pieces when a gymnast walked into auditions—or tumbled in, hand-sprung in.... On top of that, you really do forget she’s a 17-year-old young lady. My wife is one of her ballet teachers as well, and she had her in class the other day and told Aryn, ‘I mean this in the nicest way, but you are an adorable little boy!’”
Jeff Jenkins calls the whole cast “phenomenal from top to bottom. The great Mick Denniston [who piloted Little Theatre through some important years of growth as Executive Director for nearly 20 years] always said that ‘in directing, 80 percent of your job is casting. And if you get the right cast, you’re done.’ And Andy has done a phenomenal job of casting: the Darling kids are phenomenal; the Lost Boys are just wild.” And they’re all ages—the youngest "Lost Boy" is an 8-year-old girl, the oldest is 22! But as Andy says, “they all look like this tribe that belongs together. It’s very bizarre.” Jeff continues, “The Indians are wonderful—they’re beautiful, they’re lyrical.”
The guys all had equal praise for the LT technical crew headed by co-Technical Directors Chuck Rogers and Jamie Bower. “Can there be any better technical people than Chuck and Jamie?” Not to mention Kris Haik’s costume designs, Susan Gravatt’s musical direction.... “We’re just gushing over everybody,” admits Jeff Jenkins. “But this show is definitely a team effort,” adds Aaron Campbell. “This show requires everyone. Without one piece the whole thing would fall apart.”
Asked what “physical attributes” he brings to Hook and Mr. Darling, Aaron Campbell gets serious for a moment. “Actually, it’s been a really fun process because I go from playing the father, Mr. Darling, in the beginning, to Captain Hook. And I have about a 15-minute transition where one person—Tommi—she’s amazing, she does all my makeup and gets it all set together. And when you put on the curlicue mustache and get the boots on, you just take on this different persona. And he (Hook)’s a lot of fun. And he’s a buffoon—the whole bunch of pirates! And Smee (Jeff Jenkins) just makes it that much better, because everything the Captain does Smee takes it to a whole ‘nother level! You literally never know what he’s going to bring up tonight.” Which is to be expected, given Jeff’s extensive improv-comedy background.
“Andy just cringes,” says Jeff, but Andy claims, “I’ve learned to embrace it. These two? I mean, it’s right. Smee and Hook, you really cast them as a package, and I was just delighted when we got these two together.”
When I ask (innocently enough) if the Peter Pan script allows for much improv, I’m greeted with uproarious laughter from actors and director—and a “no comment!” from the latter. “For me,” says Jeff Jenkins, “every show is written with improv in mind! But there are different spots in the show where—I’ve come up with my own phrase, I like to call it ‘painting with texture’. It adds a little bit, it fills it in. Andy’s been really great about letting me do my thing and ‘tether-ball’ it—it goes out and it comes back again.”
As the complete show would run some three hours and a quarter, Andy Willadsen has had to make some judicious cuts here and there, creating a solid, fast-moving two-hour production. Of course, he wondered if Aaron’s and Jeff’s riffing and improvising might not get the length back up to three hours, but luckily that hasn’t happened (yet...).
In addition to getting exactly the cast he wanted, Andy Willadsen also feels fortunate to have a backstage/technical crew of about 30 that the audience won’t see. “I walked backstage one night during intermission because I left something back there—and I just turned around and left, because they had this whole dance going on.” The stage crew works like a well-oiled machine. “The set is huge, but they make it work every night.” Adds Jeff Jenkins, “I’m a hardened, old grizzled veteran (all of 44 years old!), and every night I get excited when Tinkerbell comes back. I’m just like, “YEAH!!” The effect of seeing Peter come flying through the windows is equally breathtaking, they all agree.
With the first weekend of Peter Pan already completed, there are three more weekends to go before the show closes Sunday October 9th. Showtimes are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm at LT's headquarters, the Landers Theatre, 311 E. Walnut. And there are two Saturday matinees at 2:00pm, Sept.24 and Oct.8. (Those afternoon matinees are all at a new time instead of the usual 2:30pm start.) But just because there are still three weeks’ worth of performances, don’t get complacent if you want to attend, as shows like this fill up quickly. “Even last night, for a Thursday, was really good.” Tickets, not only for Peter Pan but the entire 2016-17 Little Theatre season, are available by calling 869-1334 or by visiting www.springfieldlittletheatre.org.