Theater Review: J.M. BARRIE’S PETER PAN (National Tour at the OC Performing Arts Center)

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by Tony Frankel on October 13, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


In 2003, Universal Studios released a version of Peter Pan, J M Barrie’s beloved tale of childhood imagination that is threatened by burgeoning adulthood. The film used mind-boggling CGI effects to enhance the story of Peter, the boy who refuses to grow up, and Wendy, the girl whose presence in Peter’s Neverland questions his rejection of maturity by arousing his sexual curiosity. For some, it is the definitive Pan because it mixes the original play’s universal themes of childhood with a modern sensibility.

Well, here comes my theater Peter Pan pan, courtesy of the new adaptation now playing at The Orange County Performing Arts Center. It is a case of more time spent on technology than on the style and script. This Peter Pan takes place in a tent and promised to be a Cirque-like production that has actors soaring above you while 12 projectors deliver computer-generated, 360º views in the background. When the three Darling children join Peter on their first flight to Neverland, the effect is thrilling, but just for a few minutes; sitting near the back of the theatre-in-the-round, the giant screen just over your head makes the projection seem a little blurry; because the screen on the other side of the tent appears more crisp. Therefore, the effect can be more vertiginous than exciting.

The projections offer no more magic to the proceedings than a painted cyclorama would offer on a proscenium stage. Indeed, the images are often stagnant while the performers are acting out the show in what is a very straight-forward, flat, miscast, incongruous play that forgets the very thing it is trying to teach us: Without Pixie Dust, you can’t fly. It just goes to show that if you throw technology over a story that doesn’t work, it may distract you temporarily, but ultimately acts as a bulwark to your heart.

This adaptation by Tanya Ronder is poky. The characters are one-dimensional and it is oddly lacking in humor; in fact, the characters hurled epithets at each other with nary a sense of whimsy. Scenes are drawn out and lacking in exposition. Some of the funniest lines belong to other interpretations; who knows if Ronder should be credited with the line by Captain Hook: “Why is that crocodile the only female who’s ever shown the slightest interest in me?”

The direction (Ben Harrison) and styles (William Dudley) are inappropriate, inconsistent, or incompatible. Tinker Bell was clearly designed here for the modern teenage girl who thinks that a filthy Latina with attitude is fun, screaming out “stinky, stupid-ass” to Wendy. Are we supposed to think that her ratty hose, tutu and sneakers represent poorer children that have to dig through the garbage when it’s playtime? Either way, a jealous Fairy with attitude may add to the conflict, but this chick belongs to a Biker gang of Pixie Bitches. And Peter has the nerve to ask me to bring her back to life after she drank some poison!

Wait, it gets better: Tiger Lily, an American Indian that Peter helps rescue, gives him the gift of dance, which Heidi Buehler does with aplomb. But this Tiger Lily writhes and contorts, making me think that the only thing missing was a stripper pole and Peter putting pounds in her papoose.

Puppeteer Christopher Keller has the awful task of bringing Nana, the Darling’s dog and Nursemaid, to life. This lifeless puppet looks like the skin of a Saint Bernard just prior to the stuffing from a taxidermist. Keller towers over the puppet, making him seem like he is part of the Darling family.

The crocodile puppet was astounding, made of things one would find discarded in a child’s domain, such as clothespins and spools. But other parts of the show are realistic, such as the graphics (400 square miles of virtual London were rendered!).

What is up with this mish-mash of styles? (And could someone please explain what a miniature ostrich pet-puppet is doing in the script, let alone on the stage?)

The film score music by Benjamin Wallfisch was gorgeous, especially when delivered on a massive sound system, but there are no songs – just ditties assigned to a few characters. It doesn’t matter if the lyrics are good; you will be hard-pressed to understand many of them. The sound in general is challenging – some actors are miked louder than others – and the authentic English actors sound like they are giving us fake accents. The Lost Boys are played by adults. I tell you, it is uncanny. Jonathan Hyde (doing double-duty as Hook and Mr. Darling) was powerfully Shakespearean and the only actor that really shined.

The movies have virtually sacrificed story with technological advancements. Hopefully, budding theater folk will learn that technology has the potential to numb our theater experience by ignoring the magic of our imaginations. This is how one of the greatest stories of all time ended up so boring.

photos by Kevin Berne, Peter Berne, Simon Annand, Paul Rider

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan
Three Sixty° Entertainment
Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa
ends on November 21, 2010
for tickets, visit OC Performing Arts Center or Peter Pan The Show or Peter Pan 360

{ 1 comment }

Roger Bohannon January 22, 2011 at 5:26 pm

This review is epic fail. Just saw it in Atlanta and the show was absolutely unbelievable. This is the problem with California reviewers. Please. The rest of the world thought it was an incredible experience. Sorry it wasn’t up to your “standards”.

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