J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan Will Impress Children With Its Theater Magic

The kids will love all the flying.
The kids will love all the flying.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

The set-up:
Presented in its own special tent, and featuring an in-the-round 360° immersive experience as digital projections provide Imax backdrop, J.M. Barrie's  Peter Pan, the immortal tale of “the boy who wouldn't grow up” flies into Houston on its international tour. That Peter Pan doesn't entirely soar straight to the heart like it's supposed to will probably be forgiven – if not forgotten – by the multitude of children oohing and ahhing at their first glimpse of theater magic sprouting up all around them.

The execution:
What little tyke wouldn't be impressed, surrounded by a sweeping sky full of stars, a never-ending vista of London rooftops belching smoke, or a tropical pastel paradise with swaying palms and limpid lagoons? The computer-generated background set pieces look great, and when the Darling children fly off to Neverland, the optical illusion of 3-D is nearly complete as they zoom through archways and bank around the dome of St. Paul's.

But Barrie's early 20th century Edwardian twee butts hard against 21th century technology. It mostly works – in a Las Vegas, Cirque du Soliel sort of way – but poor Barrie gets trampled. The kids won't care. They get to see flying effects, scurvy pirates, goofy Lost Boys, two big sword fights, a wickerwork crocodile, and a Tinkerbell (Jessie Sherman) who could be Miley Cyrus's second cousin once removed. It's never too dull for long.

Sure, beds flip up from underneath the stage floor for the Nursery scene; characters slide slickly down cubby holes; Mermaid Rock twists into view; a maypole which first had been a tree, then Wendy's house, becomes the main mast of Hook's Jolly Roger; mermaids perform an underwater ballet which isn't nearly as accomplished as any regional Cique du Soleil routine; and there's an Irish band which isn't used much at all except as intro to the show when the audience finds its seats.

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That's the problem with this production from London: it's all second hand. There's a bit of vaudeville, then a little razzle-dazzle, but overall we've seen this before. There's no new spin on Barrie's ageless tale, no fresh way of looking at his peculiar nostalgia. Now we're in the round. So? Pan is a theatrical grab bag without much of a concept. You can almost hear the masterminds at Herrick Entertainment go into overdrive: Oh, oh, let's have the mermaids perform that acrobatic rope routine, you know, the one where they wrap fabric around their bodies and spin rapidly downward until they stop just inches from the floor? And maybe Tiger Lily, whose character has nothing to do here, can dance sexy for Peter after he saves her from Hook's marooning. Never mind that the actress is no dancer and that her interpretive routine went out with Ruth St. Denis. (Granted, Miss St. Denis could never raise her foot to her head in 1915, but the movement in 2015 is just as inappropriate.)

Cast members have honed their interpretations down to a science, having been on the tour bus for months now. But they haven't roles to hone really, since this version is zip-drive Barrie, eliminating much of that Scotsman's distinctive theatrical burr and blurring what's left. They romp, whirl, and handstand like pros, but there's nothing there. Wendy (Sarah Charles) is feisty, John (John Alati) is stuffy, and Michael (Sean Burns) is adorable. That's all the adapters have given them. The Lost Boys are disruptively cute and cuddly, but in this version is there any difference between Tootles, Slightly, Nibs, and Curly (P. Tucker Worley, Dan Wilt, Taylor Simmons, and Adam Kezele)? Hook's gang of naughty cutthroats (Liam Fennecken, Ryan Halsaver, Andreas Wyder, Mark Curtis Ferrando, Gabe Martinez, Joshua Redfield) are colorful filler, but not definite characters. Barrie's fine shading has become splotched.

The greatest accolade may be that Peter is finally played by a guy (a fresh and effervescent Dan Rosales). Disney got that right. Spielberg did too, but his Hook with Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman was so atrocious, I can not bring myself to consider that bomb any worthwhile version of Pan. So it's nice to see Peter played as quasi-teenager, or, in Rosales's case, freshman college boy, which at least gives frisson to the story's subtext about growing up with its hint of incipient sex. Not that Barrie would ever, ever, ever hint at sex! But it's there nonetheless; it comes with the territory.

While I did not enjoy Stephen Carlile's interpretation of either Mr. Darling or Captain Hook – the father was written as a terribly unfeeling martinet, and vengeful Hook was played as if drunk – the kids in the audience booed and hooted at the pirate's comic antics. Like the rest of the cast, Carlile suffered from this production's glossy adaptation that lacked any distinct personality. His defining trait are those red, court-of-Versailles heels on his boots! And why, for Barrie's sake, does Hook kill Tiger Lily? That's not part of the story in any version anywhere. Hook's a villain, not a sadist. What's the point, except to give the kids unnecessary nightmares?

The show's slick and flashy, and that first glimpse of flying out the nursery window is truly exhilarating. Any version of Barrie's great tale is worth a look. Barrie had no idea when baby Pan first appeared as a minor character in his novel The Little White Bird that his wild child would explode into such international fame and become rooted in our collective consciousness. There's always room for another Pan.

The verdict:
The saving grace is, I hope, that the youngsters merrily tromping into the tent have not seen any of this before. For first-timers, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan is the ideal intro into the mesmerizing world of live theater. It might disappoint the parents, but the little ones will be sword fighting and jumping off beds for weeks.

J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Through October 4. 360 Theatre, 4747 Southwest Freeway (U.S. 59 South and Loop 610). 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. Sundays. Purchase tickets at peterpan360.com. $30 to $90.

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