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'Peter Pan' Comes Alive

Westfield Summer Stage presents children's classic July 24-26.

Featuring a cast of more than 50, the musical "Peter Pan" will bound across the stage at Westfield High, Thursday-Saturday, July 24-26, each night at 7:30 p.m., plus a Friday, July 25, performance at 10 a.m. Tickets are $5; call 703-488-6430.

A production of Westfield Summer Stage, a theater-arts workshop for middle- and high-school students, "Peter Pan" stars Courtney Knickerbocker in the title role, Lacey Armbruster as Tinkerbell, Branson Reese as the crocodile and Jim Mitchell and Derek Rommel sharing the part of Captain Hook.

"We started this because we wanted kids to have a place to come and sing, dance, act and have fun in the summer," said artistic/executive director Lori Knickerbocker of Virginia Run. "And in four weeks, they have a finished product to present to the community. The neatest thing is that, by the end, they become a team — an ensemble, one big, happy, theater family."

Auditions were held in May and June and, said assistant director Abbie Isaac, 18, "We couldn't turn away many people — they were so talented." Besides aiding Knickerbocker, she helped the younger actors develop their characters. Said Isaac: "I really like working with this group because they absorb everything I say." She's also pleased with how the more experienced juniors and seniors shared their acting knowledge with the younger children.

The sets show a pirate ship, a child's room and Never-Neverland — where the "lost children" (not just boys, in this cast) and Indians live. Technical director is Jimmy Lawlor, a Cappie-winning, 2002 Westfield grad majoring in theater at JMU. "He's been a great asset to the group," said Knickerbocker.

"I designed the sets, lights and sound, and I'm the master electrician," said Lawlor, 19. "I love it — it's a fast-paced show." He said every technical director he's ever met has always been very stressed, and now he knows why: "You always wish you had one more week."

But he was "honored to be asked back" and his work is earning him design credits for college so, he said, "It's great for my portfolio." Most challenging, said Lawlor, is keeping everything organized and on schedule and having enough supplies on hand. But he's happy "just coming back and working with everyone I'd missed and seeing old friends again."

Knickerbocker's daughter Courtney, 14, describes her Peter Pan character as "childish, playful and jumpy." He brings the Darling children — Wendy, John and Michael — to Neverland where he lives. As captain of the lost children, said Knickerbocker, Peter Pan picks Wendy, the oldest, to be the lost children's mother because "she knows lots of stories, can mend pockets and can tuck us in at night."

She says her role is fun and, although "there's a lot to memorize," the people in the cast are "really cool." She enjoys being onstage and says it's neat to play a little boy.

Lacey Armbruster, a Stone Middle seventh-grader, plays Tinkerbell. "It's a ballet role, and I've done ballet since I was 3 and am now with the Washington School of Ballet," she explained. She describes her character as a "dancing, Wendy-hating, pixie devil."

Most of the time, she said, "Tinkerbell's flitting around, trying to 'get' Wendy because she thinks Wendy's trying to take her place in Peter Pan's life." Since Tinkerbell doesn't speak much, Armbruster conveys her feelings via "ballet steps and facial expressions."

Centreville businessman (and political candidate) Jim Mitchell plays Captain Hook as "sort of an upperclass gentleman who's turned to a life of crime. Most of the time he's macho, but he's effeminate whenever he's afraid."

Relishing his role, Mitchell said, "You can't overact — the part is larger than life. It's very slapstick on the stage." He also enjoys "the flamboyant silliness of the whole thing, and working with these kids — I've known some of them for years." He says the audience will particularly enjoy the dance numbers. "The big one, 'Ugh-A-Wug,' with the Indians, is amazing," said Mitchell. "And it's a very funny show; the kids do a great job."

Rising Westfield senior Derek Rommel also plays the pirate Hook. "I play him as more of a worm, a wimp," he said. "I'm more of a sleazy Captain Hook, than scary. He's mean but, underneath, he's just a wuss. He's scared of the crocodile and the Indians and picks on everyone smaller than him."

Hook wants revenge against Peter Pan, who cut off Hook's hand and threw it to the crocodile. Although shouting at everyone can be hard on his voice, Rommel said, "It's lots of fun to be the bad guy and boss around the pirates."

Portraying the crocodile is Cappie-winning Branson Reese, 15, a Westfield sophomore. "The crocodile is bent on finally finishing off Captain Hook after tasting his hand, 20 years ago," he said. The croc also swallowed an alarm clock, so it ticks whenever he's approaching — striking fear into Hook when he hears it.

Actually, said Reese, "I think of the crocodile as misunderstood. He was designed to eat, and probably the best thing he ever had was Hook's hand, so you can't really blame him for wanting more." Reese auditioned for this part because he thought it would be an interesting role.

Toughest, he said, is getting into character because he's never imagined himself as a crocodile. But he likes the costume and, he said, "I get to crawl across stage on a skateboard, most triumphant." Describing "Peter Pan" as a lighthearted, happy play about youth, he said it has bright colors, animals and cheerful songs for children in the audience, plus plenty of jokes for adults.

Kelsey Carroll, 14, portrays Wendy. "She's the one who knows what's going on," said Carroll. "She's wise beyond her years, but is still a little girl, so she shows these different emotions and it's funny." When Carroll auditioned, she just hoped for a role in the chorus, so getting the part of Wendy was a nice surprise.

"I love playing her," she said. "I love that she seems so smart, but likes to have fun and dance with the Indians and lost children. The audience will really like [the show]. The actors are so funny with their facial expressions and the way they move, and the costumes are awesome — just incredible."

Wearing blue sleepers and carrying a teddy bear, Rommel's blond, curly-haired brother Jeremy, 11, plays Wendy's little brother, Michael. "From watching Derek and the plays he did [at Westfield], it looked like lots of fun, so I decided to try out," he said. "Michael is kind of a brat and whines all the time." Jeremy especially likes acting in the Neverland set and hanging out with his friends playing lost children.

Westfield grad Jesse Leahy, a theater major at Radford, plays Michael's older brother, John, who wears a striped nightshirt, glasses and top hat. "John likes to role play," said Leahy. "Part of him would like to be a lost boy or pirate, but he has to watch over Michael." He said it's fun playing a boy, 12, right before starting college.

Kevin Knickerbocker, 16, portrays Smee, Captain Hook's lackey. "He's a bumbling, squeaky, little man," said Knickerbocker. "It's a fun group of pirates — a nice ensemble — and it's good to work with younger kids that I haven't worked with before."

A musical-theater major at Ohio's Wright State University, Westfield grad Courtney Reed plays Indian leader, Tiger Lily. "She's brave, strong and independent," said Reed. "I dance and portray my character's personality through strong leaps and warlike movements." Best of all, said Reed, my sister in real life, Elizabeth, plays Little Bear, my sister in the show, and it's fun to get to act with her."