Your Heart Will Fly On Wings
By R. J. Donovan
The classic tale of "Peter Pan" has been given a high-tech lift (pun fully intended) with a new state-of-the-art production that's landed in Boston's City Hall Plaza through December 30.
Presented by threesixty° in their own state-of-the-art theater, "Peter Pan" is staged in the round, with projections encircling the audience. (Think along the lines of one the circular, high-tech film theaters in DisneyWorld -- or three times the size of an IMAX screen.) The 360 degree computer generated graphics and animated video are breathtaking, all of which provides an astounding effect when the characters fly above London and beyond.
While there is a lush musical score by Benjamin Wallfasch that accents much of the action, this is not the musical version of "Peter Pan" that's ingrained in our collective theatrical consciousness. Nor the Disney version. Rather, the story goes back to J. M. Barrie's original. And in many ways, this makes the story itself far more focused, entertaining and compelling. We get a true sense of the Darling Family as well as Peter, his Lost Boys and the dastardly Captain Hook and his merry band of Pirates.
The circular stage is used to great effect, with the actors (all adults) playing to all areas and set pieces flipping and swirling and erupting from the playing area. We begin in the bedroom of the three Darling children -- Wendy, Michael and John -- as they're being put to bed. Mrs. Darling is concerned that she's seen a face at the window recently and must guard her family against intruders.
Despite Mrs. Darling's best intentions, a magical boy flies through the window and wins over the children with tales of Neverland and all its wondrous adventures. At heart, he is looking for Wendy to serve as a mother to himself as his young friends, The Lost Boys -- who became lost when they fell out of their carriages as babies without their parents even knowing.
It's also interesting that Peter is played here by a young male -- Chuck Bradley. In the musical versions, it's always been a woman, whether Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan or Kathy Rigby. The story makes more sense with a male playing a male. Intentionally a little scruffy around the edges, Bradley brings tremendous heart to his performance when you see how he deals with longing for the mother he lost so long ago.
The dizzying projections are first rate, to the point that when Peter convinced the Darlings to join him and the first flying sequence began, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. The reaction was well deserved as the illusion of the flying actors seen against the dizzying projections was seat-grippingly realistic. (It took 200 computers four weeks to create the images that are projected via high definition video against the upper walls of the tent theater.)
Once we flew out the windows of the Darling home, we soared over London, spun around Nelson's Column, zipped under London Bridge and almost scrapped our feet across the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.
The effect was also stunning once we arrived in Neverland and saw Captain Hook's pirate ship (which pummels the air with cannonballs). We went underground with the Lost Boys, slipped under the sea to witness the dangers of Mermaids, and eventually boarded the Pirate Ship, facing certain death on the gang plank. We also witnessed a cleverly staged slow-motion battle between Hook and Peter.
Even once we arrived at a given location and the audience attention was focused on the story on stage, the projections subtly continued to provide realistic elements whether palm trees swaying, waterfalls flowing or waves gently rolling in the distance.
The other difference in the story, and an engaging one at that, is the characterization of Tinker Bell. We've usually seen her as glittering ball of light or a delicate nymph. Here she's a rough and tumble tom boy with a heavy dose of attitude. She spits and sputters and thumbs her nose at any semblance of being a lady. And she wants no part of Wendy's presence, making no secret of her desire to keep Peter and The Lost Boys to herself. She's played by Emily Yetter, and she's a delight. She's truly the comic relief of the show.
Another nice touch is having Nana, the Ostrich and the dreaded Crocodile represented by clever puppets -- all of which are acted and executed by puppeteer extraordinare Joshua Holden in full view of the audience.
Josh Swales does double duty as the refined Mr. Darling as well as the oozing Captain Hook. Evelyn Hoskins is Wendy, with Tom Larkin as John and Scott Weston as Michael. Smee, Hook's right arm (again, pun fully intended) is played by Keith Richards.
There's not a weak link in the cast of Pirates and The Lost Boys, with special mention to Darren Barrere who makes for a very touching Tootles. Also, Heidi Buchler offers a particularly sensual turn as Tiger Lily.
It's interesting to note that J. M. Barrie supposedly derived the basic theme of the show from his own tragic family experience as a boy. As the program notes point out, he was one of ten children. His mother reportedly favored Barrie's older brother Michael who was accidentally killed just prior to his 14th birthday. His mother never fully recovered from the loss and chose to see Michael as being a child forever. And thus, the story of the boy who would never grow up was born.
It should also be noted that the production wisely reaches out to both the kids and the adults in the audience. This is a show with its dark moments. While it's not enough to frighten the younger audience members, it definitely gives the storyline an added edge for the grown-ups.
Giving credit where credit is fully due, the sets, costumes and projections are designed by William Dudley. The story has been adapted by Tanya Ronder. And the entire production is directed by Ben Harrison.
Aside from its sweeping technical achievements, "Peter Pan" is a smart, funny and thoroughly entertaining experience. J. M. Barrie would no doubt be pleased.
"Peter Pan," in the threesixty Theater, is at Boston's City Hall Plaza through December 30. For information, call 888-772-6849.
Production photos: Kevin Berne
-- OnStage Boston
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