Taken individually, the production elements are not always mind-blowing, especially for a regular Chicago theatergoer. The flying is performed artfully and gracefully, but you'll see more spectacular acrobatics at Lookingglass Theatre. The puppetryparticularly the huge Newfoundland dog Nana and the two-man powered crocodile that is Captain Hook's nemesisis impressive, but you'll find more surprising puppetry at a Quest Ensemble production. Still, these elements all come together in service of the story, and create an immersive fantasy world that takes us off to Neverland. And even if we miss the songs from the stage musical version of Peter Pan, there's something to be gained from seeing the story performed more faithfully to the J.M. Barrie original play and novelization.
For once, Peter is actually played by a male. Even in early productions he was played by a woman, but here the 23-year-old British stage and TV actor Ciaran Joyce takes the role, and with only a minimal suspension of disbelief he reads as a pre-teen on stage. He's impish, headstrong and magical, commanding the center of attention even in the massive playing area that includes the airspace over the round stage and the dome above the audience. This casting seems to be a much more faithful interpretation of Barrie's idealization of a certain stage of boyhood. It also brings out a modest sexual tension between Peter and Wendy, Tinker Bell and Tiger Lilya tension of which Joyce shows the pre-teen Peter to be blissfully unaware. Joyce's Wendy is played by Evelyn Hoskins, a young veteran of the West End and the BBC, and she makes a strong, self-sufficient Wendy capable of standing up to Peter and serving as an early prototype of a modern woman. Barrie's vision of Tinker Bell was 180 degrees away from Disney's. Here, she's a mischievous, almost nasty little sprite (she tries once to get Wendy killed, after all), and American actress Emily Yetter amusingly plays her as a tough little tomboy with wings.
West End leading man Steven Pacey has the dual roles of Captain Hook and the father, George Darling. His Hook is just as comically snarly and vindictive as we expect from the character, but in this script (adapted by Tanya Ronder) he's sadistic as well, planning to whip the Lost Boys before making them walk the plank. As he refers to a cat-o-nine-tails, the kids in the audience won't get it enough to be frightenedand it doesn't ever happenbut this might have an opportunity for a legitimate compromise to the piece's faithfulness to the original. Regina Leslie is a kind (and grieving when she believes her children are lost) mother to the Darling children, including the boys John and Michael, played charmingly by young British actors Tom Larkin and Scott Weston.
The visual designsets and costumes as well as the projectionswere all designed by William Dudley. The costumes are in keeping with the designs of previous productions and create both the real world of Edwardian London and the fantasy pirates and Indians of Neverland. Sets are mostly small pieces of furniture and a center stage setting that serves as the tree trunks leading down to the Lost Boys' underground hideaway, and a rock in the ocean on which Peter and Tiger Lily are left to die by Captain Hook (before being saved, of course). It's the projections, though, that really establish the settings, with huge vistas of sky and ocean and thickets of giant tree roots creating the world of Neverland, as well as the sky and skylines that move during the flights by Peter and the childrengiving a greater illusion of actual flight than we get from the oscillating swinging back and forth from harnesses in traditional proscenium versions. The life-size puppets, operated by visibly onstage puppeteers, are designed by Sue Buckmaster.
This spectacle is designed to not overpower the story, and director Ben Harrison keeps the actors central in the midst of all the things going on in this huge space. At the end of the day, this is children's theater of a very high caliber and, thanks to the unusual venue, one with a strong sense of event. Adding to the occasion is the tent's setting along the banks of the Chicago River. It's not the Thames, but it's especially pleasant for a late spring or early summer evening. Also noteworthy is the exceptional hospitality shown by the front-of-house staff who made sure to individually welcome the audience and ask at intermission if we were enjoying the show. With ticket prices ranging from $25 to $75 (and I can't imagine there really being a bad seat in the tent), this Peter Pan provides a quite decent family value in addition to offering what could be a most memorable introduction to the story and to the theater for today's kids.
Peter Pan will be performed at the Chicago Tribune Freedom Center North, 650 W. Chicago Ave., through June 19, 2011.Ticket information is available at www.BroadwayinChicago.com and www.peterpantheshow.com and by phone at 888-PPANTIX.