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Theater review: 'Peter Pan' in a tent at the Orange County Performing Arts Center

October 4, 2010 |  2:19 pm


The temporary pavilion behind Orange County Performing Arts Center resembles a Cirque du Soleil big top circus tent. Inside, a multimedia, immersive “Peter Pan” provides enough spectacle and aerial acrobatics to compete with any Cirque show.  It is the ultimate kid-friendly environment for the ultimate kid-friendly play — tiered rows near the stage locate every playgoer within a 360-degree circle of action, providing intimate close-ups of the performers.  Kids are even free to snack in their seats — they needn’t feel uncomfortable attending live theater. It’s more movie than play!

Unfortunately, it’s also more Disneyland than Neverland.

This British revival of the J. M. Barrie classic, directed by Ben Harrison, is missing what Cirque entertainments own in abundance: oohs and ahhs and wows. In an attempt to woo the YouTube generation back to the classics, it puts ambition ahead of heart. Yet for all its sensational CGI flying simulations and spectacular video projections, the touring production never quite lifts off. It’s a “Peter Pan” without fairy dust.

Still, there’s much to applaud, particularly the special effects. The star here is William Dudley, costume, set and 3D projection designer. When Dudley premiered “Peter Pan” last year in London’s Kensington Gardens (the park where Barrie first conceived of Peter Pan), he wanted to bridge more than just stage and screen.


Dudley hoped to merge old-fashioned theatrical devices with contemporary digital and virtual computer arts. His fusion often succeeds, surprisingly, in the simplest of choices. In a world constrained by computer imagery, actors preparing to fly simply hook aerial wires to their belts. It’s blatant stagecraft announcing to the children in the audience, “Hey, kids, we’re playing make believe, just like you.”

Likewise, when a certain crocodile obsessed with a one-handed pirate gets pedaled on stage, it’s a delightful sight gag. Constructed of mundane household items, including coat hangers and clothespins, this hilarious contraption steals every scene it cycles through. It outshines even the vivid lagoon and pirate ship projections because it embodies the whimsical, make-believe nature of the original play. If J.M. Barrie met this crocodile — resembling an Edwardian wind-up toy — he would certainly have cast it immediately.

But special effects are not why “Peter Pan” endures as a beloved classic, not why the story has been remade countless times in countless genres. Neverland isn’t only make believe. Character counts more than construction.

Alas, this expensive, ambitious, cutting edge show is arguably the first “Peter Pan” without a child at its heart. There’ s not a real Peter or Tinker Bell in sight.

There’s a fairy, but not one you would dare call “Tink.” Here she wears a dirty tutu and is portrayed by Itxaso Moreno with strident hostility as a kind of punk street urchin. Her fairy language is no “tinkle of bells”—it’s foul shrieks. Shirts for sale in the lobby carry the logo: “fairy with attitude.” Indeed.

No wonder adapter Tanya Ronder has eliminated fairy dust; considering the “attitude,” the powder would likely be an illegal substance. Nor do we clap to save this fairy. The audience is encouraged to chant, “I believe in fairies”—just as in the 2003 live-action film, which chose not to directly address the audience.

All the Lost Boys and the Darling children are also portrayed by adults acting like kids. Imagine “Oliver!” with a grown man in the title role, and Fagin leading men, not children into lives of crime. When Nate Fallows, who plays Pan, throws murderous feet-stomping tantrums (in this telling, every time he stamps his feet an adult dies), his size, and age, are obvious, making the performance more distracting than convincing. In fact, Fallows rarely compels our attention; he’s clearly not a boy and the man who wouldn’t grow up isn’t nearly as interesting.

Of the performers, only Jonathan Hyde, doing the traditional double duty as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling, is memorable. His Momma’s boy is a Hook for the ages.

In Barrie’s 1911 novelization of his 1904 play, the first description of Peter Pan reads: “He was a lovely boy, clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees …” That suggests a wild boy few adults can evoke on stage or film, and perhaps helps to explain why gifted women such as Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby made such memorable Pans. It also explains why a mature cast, no matter how winsome, no matter the special effects, rarely captures the spirit of the wild child.

-- Richard Stayton



Peter Pan' takes flight in a tent amid CGI

Interactive graphic: A panoramic journey into Neverland

Photos of "Peter Pan," with Nate Fallows at Peter Pan, Jonathan Hyde as Captain Hook and Abby Ford as Wendy. Credit: Jay Clendenin

Comments () | Archives (3)


Ernie says I never take him out anymore so we're going to go see this!

This review disgusts me. Have you ever read Peter Pan? I would call myself a huge Peter Pan fan. I have read the book over and over again since a very young age and have prided myself in knowing a great deal about Peter Pan. Itxaso Moreno played a spectacular Tinkerbell. Jealousy, greed, rudeness, and attitude is the definition of Tinkerbell. Just because she isn't acting like the Tinkerbells you see in the Disney movie, or any other Peter Pan movie, doesn't mean you can't call her Tink. The "hostility" was perfect and was exactly what I was expecting and hoping for as a fan of the novel. Nate Fallows was an amazing Peter Pan! I enjoyed his youth and his "tantrums" were simply lovely. He WAS a little boy and he couldn't have been better. When Wendy begins to talk about mothers keeping windows open for their children I took the liberty to glance over at Peter sitting on his bed. Nate Fallows portrayed Peter's mixture of anger, sadness, and feelings of betrayal PERFECTLY and stunningly. He was dark, mysterious, cunning, and even frightening which was beautiful and made for the best portrayal of Peter Pan I have ever seen. The lost boys were my absolute favorite part because I found myself forgeting they were grown men! They acted adorably and JUST like little boys which made it hilarious and charming. I have always disliked the part of Wendy but Abby Ford played her in a splendid way that made me adore her. You had one thing right which is that Jonathan Hyde was memorable. He was remarkable. This production of Peter Pan has lost no heart to the special effects. The entire show was charming and had the exact feeling that Peter Pan should have. It should cause wonder and excitement in the hearts of children, and fear in the hearts of adults. They presented the feelings of make believe WONDERFULLY and, honestly, that is the most important part of Peter Pan. They didn't miss a thing when they put together this play. The actors were spectacular, the stage/set was amazing, the CGI projecting on the walls of the tent were unbelievable, and the story was everything a Peter Pan fan can hope for and MORE. I hope that no one decided not to see this play because of this review written by someone who either hasn't read Peter Pan at all or read it simply as a journalist without the heart of a child and with the inability to believe like one.


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