Whitefish Theatre Company Takes Flight

By Beacon Staff

Last weekend, five Flathead Valley actors – with the help of “happy thoughts,” fairy dust, cables and pulleys – learned to fly.

“Peter Pan is one of the best stories when you’re little because the kids flew,” Alexa Cote, 13, said. “We get to act out everybody’s favorite part. I’m going to be flying, I’m going to be in the air – that’s so exciting.”

In its 30th year, the Whitefish Theatre Company, a non-profit, community-based performing arts organization, is undertaking the musical production of “Peter Pan” for its annual Christmas performance. The theater has historically taken on “larger-than-life shows,” as one actor put it, for its December production, including “Beauty and the Beast” and “Cinderella” the past two years.

Colin Arakaki, Dustin Churchill and Rick Early, bottom left to right, fly Alexa Cote, playing the part of Liza, in the Whitefish Theatre Company’s rehearsal of Peter Pan at the O’Shoughnessy Center in Whitefish.

But “Peter Pan” may be the most ambitious yet.

“In size and scope, this is a challenging show,” director Jesse Culp said. “There’s flying – it doesn’t get much more challenging than that.”

Whitefish Theater Company hired ZFX, a national professional flying business, to take its actors airborne. Each “flying actor” is outfitted with one of ZFX’s custom-built flying harnesses, straps that go over the shoulders and under each leg. They are then hooked up to a cable that’s anchored by another person backstage.

Peter, played by 21-year-old Melanie Jerger of Kalispell, will be able to fly forward and backward, up and down. The other flying actors will be limited to up-and-down movements.

In order to fly, the crew must accommodate several unusual modifications, from rearranging the set to making sure pipes are out of the way and adding discreet holes to the backs of costumes. Adding to the challenge is the fact that the actors got their first chance to experience flying last weekend – just six days before opening night.

“A lot of what we’ve been doing might have to be tweaked right at the end,” Culp said. “It’s an element I can’ t control and that’s rare, and a little unnerving, for a director.”

In full Captain Hook costume, Matt Ford rehearses his part in the upcoming Whitefish Theatre Company production of Peter Pan.

The local theater’s rendition of the classic fairytale will closely mimic the original story by Scottish playwright and novelist J. M. Barrie, which first appeared on Broadway in 1954. It tells the familiar story of Peter Pan, a mischievous boy who refuses to grow up, and his adventures on the island of Neverland with Wendy Darling and her brothers, the fairy Tinker Bell, the Lost Boys, the Indian princess Tiger Lily and the pirate Captain Hook.

The lead roles of Peter Pan, Wendy and Captain Hook will be played by Jeger, Caitlin Johnson and Matt Ford, respectively. The part of Smee, Hook’s sidekick and boatswain, has also been expanded into a main role, Culp said, and will be played by Scarlett Schindler.

“It’s one of those shows where everyone truly is important, though,” Culp said. “The Indians, the Lost Boys, the animals – they all play integral roles in the show because they add to the fantastical element and create the dream world.”

The approximately 30 actors who appear on stage are just a fraction of the people from the community involved in the production, she added. For the past two-and-a-half months, dozens of area residents have been working on the set, music, choreography and costuming for the show.

The community theater emphasis is evidenced in three of the show’s cast members: Mike Conway and Katie and Emma Niton, Conway’s daughter and granddaughter. “It’s pretty cool to have three generations in one show,” Katie Niton said. “My daughter is the symbol of childhood at the end, so we’ll all by crying backstage.”

“Peter Pan” requires an imaginative set, changing from a children’s bedroom to a magical island and even a pirate ship. The costumes are equally fanciful: There’s an ornate, feathered ostrich, beaded vests and leggings for the Indians, pirate outfits and the show’s infamous crocodile, which is about 10 feet long.

“It really is a labor of love,” said Lonnie Poro, one of the show’s costume designers.

Melanie Jerger, front, strikes a pose at the end of a musical number while rehearsing with fellow Peter Pan cast members. Jerger has the lead role as Peter Pan.

The show’s participants say that hard work will be rewarded, especially in one moment: when the first actor’s feet leave the floor.

“The look on children’s faces in the audience are going to be amazing when Peter goes up in the air,” Culp said. “It’s Peter Pan: He’s youth, he’s joy, he’s freedom. It’s a magical show.”

“Peter Pan” will run for three consecutive weekends, Dec. 5-7, 12-14 and 19-21, at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish. Show times are at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays; and 4 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults and $16 for students and seniors.