A ‘Peter Pan” for a more diverse century: Amherst production offers new take on well-known musical 

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    Phoebe Hazzard, as Liza, performs during a rehearsal at Amherst Regional Middle School for the upcoming musical “Peter Pan" by Amherst Leisure Services. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Olivia Murphy-Boyle, director of “Peter Pan,” says the musical offers a fresh take on the well-known storyline, in part by having a diverse cast. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Julian Smith, as John, and Serena Nyarko, as Wendy, dance during a “Peter Pan” rehearsal at Amherst Regional Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cast members of “Peter Pan” warm up at the start of a rehearsal in December at Amherst Regional Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Caroline Pierce, left, as Nana, and Liana Page, as Michael, rehearse a scene from “Peter Pan.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

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    Serena Nyarko, as Wendy, and Julian Smith, as John, dance during a rehearsal for "Peter Pan" at Amherst Regional Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS—

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    Serena Nyarko, as Wendy, and Julian Smith, as John, rehearse a scene from “Peter Pan" at Amherst Regional Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

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    From left, Rob Olmsted as Mr. Darling, Serena Burdick as Mrs. Darling, Serena Nyarko as Wendy, Liana Page as Michael, and Julian Smith as John, rehearse for "Peter Pan." STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

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    From left, Serena Nyarko as Wendy, Rob Olmsted as Mr. Darling, Serena Burdick as Mrs. Darling, Liana Page as Michael and Julian Smith as John rehearse a scene from "Peter Pan." STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

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    Serena Burdick, as Mrs. Darling, and Rob Olmsted, as Mr. Darling, rehearse a scene from "Peter Pan" at Amherst Regional Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Anna Plummer, an Amherst native now attending Amherst College, plays Peter Pan. Plummer has performed in a number of ALSCT musicals over the years

For the Gazette
Published: 1/2/2019 4:36:01 PM

‘Peter Pan” is a Broadway classic. But this year, the Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater (ALSCT) is putting a more contemporary spin on the beloved musical, with a diverse cast and a vision that aims to explore more closely the relationships between characters.

ALSCT has also cast a wide net in seeking actors and dancers from across the Valley and beyond for its all-volunteer production, which opens January 10 at Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts; there are multiple shows from January 10-13 and again on January 17-20.

“I’m really proud to say that we are producing a musical that truly showcases the local community in every sense,” said director Olivia Murphy-Boyle. She noted that performers come from throughout the region, including Springfield, Amherst,  Holyoke, Montague, Belchertown and Northampton, with ages ranging from eight to the late 60s.

“For me, a cast that is truly representative of the immediate area is really at the heart of what community theater should be,” Murphy-Boyle added.

In addtion, when she and other ALSCT team members opened auditions, they encouraged people to try for roles they might not otherwise consider. Anyone could audition for, say, a role as a pirate and be assured the parts would not just go to “typical” pirates — older boys and men.

The result? A “Peter Pan” with a very diverse cast. The Darling children, for instance, are of various races; Captain Hook and Peter Pan are both played by women; and the pirates are a refreshingly diverse crew in terms of age, gender identity, and more.

Olivia Murphy-Boyle and her wife, choreographer Mikaela Murphy-Boyle, said they did extensive outreach in an effort to get more people to audition, using social media and other digital tools to reach a broader audience.

“Something like 61 percent of the cast is completely new to ALSCT,” Mikaela Murphy-Boyle said. 

The Murphy-Boyles say they worked to eliminate the dated and more racist elements of a show whose characters were first created in the late 1800s. “We are producing a show that speaks to, and is more reflective of, a diverse, contemporary audience,” Olivia Murphy-Boyle said.

One of the new ALSCT performers is Serena Nyarko, 15, a 10th grader from Amherst, who plays Wendy in her first-ever theatrical production. The soft-spoken Nyarko danced on and off with Amherst Ballet when she was younger and recently took a musical theater class that sparked an interest in acting.

“(Wendy) is, in many ways, like me,” Nyarko said. “She’s kind of a peacemaker, and I can really relate to that. I don’t like there to be too much drama and sometimes I find myself having to fix things at home, with my family, when there is conflict.”

Nyarko said at first she was nervous about the prospect of performing on a university stage before such a large audience. But over time, she’s become increasingly more comfortable with the idea. 

Another newcomer to ALSCT is Grace Olmsted, 26, who plays Captain Hook. Olmsted studied opera singing and acting in college and returned to the Valley, where her dad is from, to work as a speech pathologist after earning a master’s degree. When she heard the director was interested in casting a woman for the role of Hook, Olmsted was immediately interested.

“I thought I would have something unique to contribute to this character,” she said. “I’ve played several ‘pants’ roles [a role in which a female character appears in male clothing] in more classical productions and was intrigued by the opportunity and challenge to play this type of role in a classic Broadway musical.”

A maternal relationship

Olivia Murphy-Boyle says she read over the musical’s script countless times and extensively researched the history of “Peter Pan,” including the original novel and play, written by Scottish author J.M. Barrie, on which the musical is based. She then “worked backwards” through the show, analyzing how all the characters ultimately end up and thinking about their influences and motivations.

One of the themes that emerged is the idea of a child (Peter Pan) who runs off, only to come “home” again and find he is barred from his nursery.

“This is the significant loss that kind of defines Peter, if you listen to the lyrics of the songs and hone in on the dialogue,” Olivia Murphy-Boyle said. “It is actually quite dark.”

 Olmsted said having a woman in an adversarial role with Peter Pan allows the production to explore the maternal relationship between Peter and Captain Hook.

“I hope that audiences might respond or pick up on the way that it brings to light a little more clearly the complex relationship that Peter has with a mother figure,” she said. “I don’t want it to be at the forefront, but it may be something that people notice and consider.”

Olivia Murphy-Boyle also cast a young woman — Anna Plummer, 21, a junior at Amherst College — as Peter Pan. Plummer, who is from Amherst, has danced ballet since age 3 and has also been in nine ALSCT productions over the years — but this is her biggest role yet.

Olivia Murphy-Boyle said when the play was first staged in 1904, a female actor who was mature enough to play Peter, but still pass for a young boy, was cast in the title role. This has often been the case in other productions of “Peter Pan,” Murphy-Boyle noted.

Plummer was thrilled to get the part because “Peter Pan” has always been a favorite of hers. When ALSCT first staged the musical, she tried out for the part of Tinkerbell, despite technically being too young to audition. (In the upcoming ALSCT production, a light portrays Tinkerbell).

“I saw the show, loved it, and decided I had to do musical theater right then and there, and I have been doing it ever since,” she said.

Plummer said she was drawn to the “freedom” and “raw nature” of the character of Peter Pan. “He is so childish and selfish and also surprisingly violent sometimes. But he is also magical and full of unadulterated joy. Honestly, as a performer, what could be more fun than that?” 

The role also gives her an opportunity to showcase her considerable dancing experience and to “combine my love of music, dance, and acting,” she said.

Mikaela Murphy-Boyle choreographed all the dance sequences in the show, which feature both highly trained local dancers and ensemble members, some of whom have never danced on stage before.

“We are lucky to have incredible dancers in the show,” she said. “But it’s also been a treat to work with every person who is dancing. Whatever their experience level, they are challenging themselves and taking risks to make the dance scenes exciting and completely their own.”

ALSCT productions are also known for their colorful, volunteer-built sets, and though the Murphy-Boyles did not want to reveal too much about this year’s set, they said designer Hugh Hall has “pulled out all the stops. It really is something special.”

And this being “Peter Pan,” there’s also plenty of flying in the show. Given that, the dance sequences, the singing and the storyline, “There really is something for everyone, ”said Mikaela Murphy-Boyle. 

Olivia Murphy-Boyle said community theater is especially “meaningful and inspiring” because it gives audience members a chance to see people they know in their everyday lives, performing onstage and bringing different characters to life. And in this case, she noted, those community members will be offering a story that many people know and love, but with a twist.

“This show is over 100 years old,” Olivia Murphy-Boyle said. “I am hoping that we are offering a different viewpoint, but something that is also beloved and familiar. A lot of it I hope to leave open to interpretation because that is the magic of theater.”

For more information about “Peter Pan,” and to buy tickets, visit the ALSCT website at www.alsct.org or call 413-259-3065. Editor’s note: Reporter Sandra Dias’ daughter, Avy Dias-Plavcan, performs as Jane and as a Lost Boy in the production.

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