High Flying With Peter Pan Under the Big Top in Houston

Charlie Burnell loved the Peter Pan story and wanted to bring it to life, but in a different way, he says. Starting in 2006, the producer began work with designer William Dudly to craft a new show (it took three years to pull together) that they thought would be perfect to open in England's Kensington Gardens in an tent.

The result is Peter Pan 360, performed by a British theater company on its way to Houston courtesy of Houston's Society for the Performing Arts.

“Apart from wanting to stay very close to the original in terms of the spirit of the story, we had a blank canvas in the way in how we might tell it. We knew we wanted to do really, really good flying. We decided on working completely in the round with quite a large stage so we could deliver epic moments, but intimate moments as well because none of the audience is very far from the stage,” Burnell says.

The two-hour show with intermission is described as an immersive experience, meaning audience members get to relive J.M. Barrie's classic tale about the boy who wouldn't grow up while actors fly about overhead. It was Dudley who came up with the idea to use video projections on the interior walls of the tent to replace the paint of more traditional scenery backdrops. Think Cirque du Soleil with a healthy sprinkling of fairy dust.

There are other changes as well. Unlike traditional casting, Peter will be played by a boy (well, man; all the actors are adults. Some, like the Pirates, are just taller than the Lost Boys). And Tinker Bell will not be just a flashing light but a real woman (albeit a diminutive one, according to Burnell).

Finding actors to take this on can be challenging. As Burnell puts it, it's one thing to offer an actor a role as Peter Pan or Wendy. What actor is going to say no? That's followed up with a: “Do you think you'll have any trouble with the height? No, they say.” However, as he acknowledges, “It goes completely against one's nature to be in a harness suspended by two wires from your hips and hoisted straight up into the air.” And there is a chance of technical malfunctions.

On one occasion, an actress couldn't get down as planned because of a glitch. “She was just suspended there 40 feet in the air for five to ten minutes. She just hung there like a good girl till we sorted it out,” Burnell says.

Burnell says the continued appeal is that of a well-told, nuanced story by Barrie.

“Children see the swashbuckling and the adventure and the pirates and the magic and total lack of having to do anything you're told, off to Neverland with no responsibilities at all, which is just great,” he says. “Adults see Peter Pan doesn't want to grow up, see Wendy, who clearly loves him and wants him to grow up, wants to be a mother herself. The children see the adventurer; the adults see the heartache, the heartbreak. And I think they see what they've lost by growing up.”

Performances are scheduled for September 8-24 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1:30 p.m. Sundays; and 5:30 p.m. Sunday. 4747 Southwest Freeway, off U.S. 59 South and 610. $30-$105.

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