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

October 4, 2010 |  2:19 pm

Peterpan

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.

Ppan

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

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Wendy

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

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