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BWW Reviews: Imaginative PETER PAN Flies High at OCPAC

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Oh, if we all could only be so lucky enough to re-experience being inside the mind of a child: wide-eyed, awed and genuinely riveted by the wonders of magic and make-believe.

Besides its distinct presentation that allows for some suspension of reality, that very innocence—that spark of joy in a child's heart—is what threesixty° Theater's PETER PAN relies on heavily for its thoroughly delightful, childishly giddy, and fully-immersive theatrical experience. Genuinely enjoyable for both young and older audiences, by the time Peter Pan flies hand-in-hand with the Darling children high above the circular stage at the center of the tent-theater, soaring up and down and through the swiftly passing landmarks of London before finally arriving in Neverland, the feeling of youthful euphoria breezes all around. Here, the wonders of technology not only serve the story well, it also elevates it—and quite literally.

A charming hit spectacular direct from London (which later debuted in the U.S. for our neighbors up north in San Francisco over the summer), PETER PAN—now performing its only Los Angeles- and Orange County-area engagements at the Orange County Performing Arts Center through November 21—uses advanced projection technologies, clever staging and design, gravity-defying flying sequences, and an engaging ensemble cast to produce a spry new take on the classic JM Barrie tale. This production of PETER PAN is quite unlike anything ever produced before... certainly putting "imagine" in re-imagined.

First produced in London in late December 1904, and then a year after on Broadway, the story is familiar to many: We are in turn-of-the-century London, and in the Darling household, the children are full of playfully vivid imaginations. Their caring but firm mother (the exquisite Shannon Warrick) has shared with them numerous stories about Peter Pan and his adventures in Neverland. At this particular night, the children's more stringent father (the wonderful Jonathan Hyde) has banished their nursery maid/governess Nana outside of the house because... well, she's a dog.

As the Darling parents leave the children to sleep in their bedroom high above their house, a tiny pin-point of light darts in through the open bay window, followed by a larger silhouette. We soon learn that these uninvited visitors are Tinker Bell (Itxaso Moreno) and Peter Pan (the adorable Nate Fallows). Tinker Bell, Peter's unruly, often belligerent fairy sidekick has found Peter's missing shadow stored in the nursery's storage chest. Unable to successfully attach his shadow back to his body, the boy-child begins to cry, waking the sleeping Wendy (the impressive Abby Ford). Wendy recognizes Peter from the stories her mother had shared, and offers to sew Peter's shadow back on him (which, like magic, worked, of course).

Peter convinces Wendy to return to Neverland with him to be the surrogate mother to his Lost Boys tribe. Giddy about the prospects (and, perhaps, crushing a bit on Peter), Wendy and her two younger brothers John (Arthur Wilson) and Michael (David Poynor) agree to fly high above the skies of London in search for the second star to the right. They arrive only to be met with cannonfire and death threats from Neverland's murderously evil Captain Hook (Hyde, in a wickedly-delicious second role), intent on defeating his flying nemesis who was responsible for cutting off his hand and feeding it to the crocodile. The crocodile—who also swallowed a clock and therefore can be heard when it approaches—developed such a taste for Hook's flesh that it stalks him constantly, causing much of the Captain's hilariously melodramatic, over-the-top anxiety and hysteria.

After spending some time in Neverland, though, Wendy soon realizes not only Peter's constant forgetfulness and unruly lifestyle, but that life in Neverland isn't as wonderful as she had imagined in her mind (despite the exciting adventures, and the beautifully lush surroundings).

Though novelist/playwright Barrie's original tale spawned many versions in its first century—Walt Disney's animated feature is arguably its most famous iteration—this production, led by the production designs of William Dudley, takes Barrie's original play and douses it with buckets of both technological and creative pixie dust to help tell (and sell) the story.

The entire theater is housed under a specially-constructed state-of-the-art tent, and presents the two acts "in the round." The circus-like stadium seating configuration all face a circular stage at the center, where set pieces and even actors disappear with a flip of a floorboard. The use of puppets is extraordinary, not for their Lion King-inspired life-like mobility, but for their witty construction: as this tale is primarily from the point-of-view of children, creatures are cleverly constructed from objects found in the Darling nursery (clothes-pins make up a crocodile's teeth, for example).

Its most distinctive trait is where the threesixty° Theatre get its name: the walls that surround the theater's upper echelons is proclaimed as the world's first 360-degree CGI theater set, where computer-generated backdrops are projected for a feeling of truly being a part of the action for both actors and spectators. Depending on where you're sitting, the flow of the backdrops move in the contextually-correct direction as the action happens before you. Admittedly, at one point as a reflex reaction, I actually ducked when a cannonball was fired towards us.

Up above, at the tent's highest peak, contains the show's flying mechanisms that hoist the actors so fluidly above as they mime flights through the skies and swims in the ocean depths. All are done so well and with such care for the sensitivities of the young and the young-at-heart, that even jaded adults can easily join the little ones in getting enjoyably lost in the magic of it all.

Visual wonders aside, the show also works thanks to its marvelous lead players. Blessed with a gymnast's physique and a cherub face, the loveable Fallows deftly straddles boyishness and aloofness with his remarkably expressive skills as both an actor and an acrobat. By the end, both the kids and the adults just want to squeeze Fallows' cheeks and give him a huge a hug. It is also nice to see an actual, youthful male figure playing the role (no offense to Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby, et. al. who have done terrific jobs playing Peter in the musical versions of this same story).

Fallows squares off amusingly with the appropriately theatrical Hyde, whose sinister threats against the Lost Boys (and his own daft pirate henchmen) can be scary one minute and boisterously hilarious the next (kids will revel in seeing the Captain fail over and over again). He is quite the scenery-chewing villain, but one so very amusing to watch.

Of Hook's pirate crew, Antony Strachan stood out as Smee, providing Hook with a more amiable, good-natured comic foil. As Wendy, Ford beams and turns her know-it-all girly girl into a sweet, steadfast companion for Peter and his fellow flock. This feels more her story than anyone else's, as she quickly grows up emotionally before our very eyes. This production chooses to also include Barrie's updated ending he called the play's Afterthought, and in it, Ford caps off some truly beautiful work.

I am still a bit on the fence when it came to Moreno's Tinker Bell. This revisionist take on the world's most famous fairy took some getting used to, from her wingless, rocker chic (kudos on Moreno's impressively muscular arms, though) to her off-and-on mumbles that seemed a bit too forced. But soon enough, though, she does grow on you... and the kids will find her a hoot. Her spunky, wild-child non-sensical grunts became less perplexing as the show proceeds.

Although I had hoped to hear more back story and less manic, on-stage antics from each of the Lost Boys (they all tended to blend in interchangeably between each other), the show's pacing felt alright, if not still a bit long-winded in some of the more dialogue-heavy scenes. The animated scenes projected onto the 360-degree screens are bright and gorgeous; the CGI images are like much more detailed versions of the lush images created for the MYST video games.

Along with a soaring background score by Benjamin Wallfisch, there are even interesting moments when the cast bursts into song, which has me wondering if this production could have been more suited for the musical version of the fantasy story. Can you imagine the song "I'm Flying" done with these production tricks?

The pseudo-Cirque du Soleil aerial sequence of the mermaids is artistically appreciated, but seemed wholly unnecessary, as is the odd, out-of-place "thank you" dance of Tigerlily (Heidi Buehler). Though Tigerlily's dance (and its choreography) were great, it felt more like the sequence belonged on a Pussycat Dolls concert. Perhaps that is why the audience has a hearty laugh when Peter just aloofly dismisses the dance gift and simply says goodbye to the seduction of the freed native.

In the spirit of full disclosure, for me, the character of Peter Pan has always been a personal favorite from my youth. Not only does he never age, he also gets to fly and have "awfully big adventures" with his similarly youthful pals, forgetting about the cruelties and ugliness of the world run by adults. As much as adults (like myself) may find Peter's petulant protests about never wanting to grow up a bit grating (in the same fashion I find strollers running over my feet in a crowd utterly annoying), one can also find a lovely equity in his wishes to live forever as a boy.

Under the hard-working direction of Ben Harrison from a fairly approachable adapted script by Tanya Ronder, the threesixty° Theatre production of PETER PAN, at least for a while, reminds us in not-so-subtle terms that once, perhaps a long time ago, we had these childhood joys of play, imagination, and make-believe that are worthy of revisiting. To fully surround us with those sensations, they have taken an effectively creative approach to telling this story that holds both adults and younger patrons visually captive. Even as the actors soar bravely above with visible wires, and as animal puppeteers are not concealed from the puppets they bring to life, we all tend to easily neglect these wires and puppeteers because of the sheer inventiveness of it all. This certainly more than adequately qualifies this PETER PAN as a great piece of theater.

Not only is this a uniquely-presented theater experience so curiously unorthodox and yet so richly inviting for the youngest of theater patrons—you enter through a maze of candy machines, snack bars and merchandise counters—the whole experience itself... entering the circus-like pavilion, locating your seat to find the nursery set, and then being treated to two mesmerizing acts of pure imagination... it all culminates to become not just a theater show, but rather a theater event to excite the child in all of us.

Top Photo: Nate Fallows as Peter Pan by Paul Rider.
Middle Photo (L to R): Arthur Wilson, Abby Ford, David Poynor and Nana by Kevin Berne.
Bottom Photo: Jonathan Hyde & Nate Fallows by Kevin Berne.

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Performances of the threesixty° Theatre's presentation of JM Barrie's PETER PAN at the Orange County Performing Arts Center continue through November 21 and are on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings at 7 p.m.; Saturdays at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.; Sundays at 12:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.

There will not be a performance on Thanksgiving Day, November 25. There will be a special matinee performance on Friday, November 26 at 1 p.m. in addition to the evening performance at 7 p.m.

Tickets to see PETER PAN are priced $30 to $75. Premium ticket packages are also available, and include admission to the performance, drink voucher, souvenir brochure, PETER PAN audio book and PETER PAN memorabilia. Tickets can be purchased online at OCPAC.org, in-person at the Center’s Box Office at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa, or by calling 714.556.2787.

For more information, visit www.peterpantheshow.com.


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