As a little boy, Rajiv Joseph had a cardboard box beside his bed. It contained Spiderman and Hulk comics and Peter Pan storybooks.
Now as an adult, the acclaimed playwright is helping his childhood hero once again take flight in a new musical about the boy who never grew up.
“Fly” soars into the La Jolla Playhouse from February 18 to March 29, brought to life by an award-winning creative team that includes two Tony winners and two critically acclaimed theater writers. It’s a project that was launched by Jeffrey Seller, who approached Joseph nearly 10 years ago about writing a Peter Pan musical.
Seller, who has won four Tony awards, has produced such major hits as “Hamilton,” “Avenue Q,” “Rent” and “In the Heights.” He is now directing “Fly.”
At the time, Joseph’s career was just beginning, and he had only written plays like “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” for which he was a Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist, and “Gruesome Playground Injuries.”
However, he says, he had only seen musicals during his childhood in Cleveland until he hit grad school. This project was a natural fit.
“I was approached by Jeffrey Seller about adapting Peter Pan into a new musical and we talked about it,” Joseph says. “Growing up it had been my favorite story as a child and I was raised on musicals, so it didn’t feel like a new thing to me.”
Seller introduced him to composer Bill Sherman, who did the orchestrations for “In the Heights” for which he won a Tony. The next to join the team was lyricist Kirsten Childs, who has won an Obie for her “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin.”
“It’s been a long and joyous process,” Joseph says. “It’s been one with many ups and downs as we figure out the story and how we want to present it. It was already produced six years ago in Dallas and it was a beautiful production, but afterward we all realized we still needed some time to figure out some issues and questions we had, so we went back to work.”
Ready to fly
Now, with many changes made, they are ready to see the show staged again. The powerhouse creative team cast a star-studded cast.
“This is a truly extraordinary company,” says Christopher Ashley, La Jolla Playhouse’s artistic director. “It’s a wonderful mix of Broadway veterans, playhouse newcomers and local artists, and I can’t wait to watch their collective talents light up the Weiss stage in this enchanting new musical.”
“Fly” aims to be faithful to the original novel’s themes while exploring certain aspects very deeply. At the first rehearsal, Seller read the opening paragraph of the book to the cast and crew. Joseph says everything in that first paragraph is what they are trying to achieve. It captures, he says, both the sadness and the joy of growing older and the challenges of leaving behind your childhood.
“It’s very much a part of J.M. Barrie’s work, but not really an aspect that has been in the theatrical iterations of the story so far, so that was what we are striving for,” Joseph says.
In this musical, Wendy (played by Storm Lever) takes center stage, in no small part because she does make the decision to grow up, understanding what she is giving up and what she is choosing. Joseph says Wendy has always been the character who undergoes a deep change in the story.
“Wendy—a girl seduced by the mysteries of Neverland and struggling with her own impending womanhood—is the focus of this singular version of the Peter Pan story,” Ashley says.
Peter Pan (played by Lincoln Clauss) doesn’t really change as he never grows up nor transforms. Wendy realizes she does want to grow up and eventually sees the value in it, which is what “Fly” focuses on.
The crocodile takes on a significant role in this musical and is portrayed differently than is traditional. She is a spirit of the island.
“The figure in the story that everyone is frightened of is the crocodile,” Joseph says. “Unbeknownst to the characters, the crocodile is a sort of life force, the heartbeat embodiment of the island itself. In many ways, the crocodile is our guide through the story and the person Wendy is circling all along. Initially (the crocodile) comes across as a frightening character, but as Wendy starts to understand more about the world, she comes to understand that the crocodile is a life-giving force and not a destructive one.”
The crocodile is played by Elyse LaFontaine, whom Joseph says does a beautiful job with capturing the creature’s mystery and mystique.
The music is highly percussive with the primary element being drums. Seller wanted the crocodile to represent the heartbeat of the island and to hear that heartbeat throughout the show as soon as they arrive in Neverland.
“The score Bill Sherman has composed is probably my favorite aspect of this show,” Joseph says. “The songs are pulsing and percussive and tribal. They have a primal energy that I’ve never seen before in any other Peter Pan. No other American musical has this type of score.”
To that end, the all-female chorus never leaves the stage and represent the forest of Neverland. They create the world through their presence on stage and they also contribute to the sound of the island and the music of the show by drumming and singing. It helps to weave the mystery of Neverland deeply into the score. The women also help with the flying; they attach children to the ropes.
Set designer Anna Louizos built the set out of bamboo, creating an expressionistic set that doesn’t try to build a realistic or naturalistic forest.
“It’s this incredible creation of wood that juts out at different angles,” Joseph says. “It can be moved and is modular so you can have different setups of Neverland. It is very expressionistic and exciting. I think it presents a Neverland the likes of which haven’t been seen on stage before.”
The show has undergone a lot of changes since it first played in Dallas six years ago. Joseph says that while they were proud of that show and it was beautifully done, once they got a distance from it and started discussing aspects of it, everyone had questions and wanted to get to a deeper truth.
“No one wants to settle if we can make it better,” says Joseph, adding everyone on the creative team has been a delight to work with.
“Everyone brings a different dynamic energy and it all flows from Jeffrey (Sellers) who is this incredibly brilliant and insightful man.”
He says he always considered Peter Pan to be a peer of modern costumed superheroes.
“I liked the fact as a child that a young boy could lord over a bunch of adults,” Joseph says. “I liked that Peter Pan had a sword, that he fought pirates, and that he flew. He’s a dazzling, charismatic and brave little boy.”
Joseph says Peter Pan is always a fun character to write, even though he describes him as being almost more of a symbol, whereas Hook and Wendy are the characters that really undergo transformations in the story.
Ten years after beginning the process, he is thrilled to see it come to the La Jolla stage and the San Diego community.
“All of us on the creative team and cast are excited to be moving ahead with this and offer it to this community,” Joseph says. “It will be a really exciting experience for anyone who shows up.”
“Fly,” La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, 858.550.1010, lajollaplayhouse.org, various times Tuesday, February 18, to Sunday, March 29, $25-$82.