I love me some flying. I often joke that any show could be improved with a little theatrical aerialics. (“Yes, Death of a Salesman is a great American drama, but you know what would make it better? A flying sequence for Willy and Linda.”)
So it shouldn’t surprise you that I was excited to see this new adaptation of Peter Pan, which comes to Chicago following an acclaimed run in London’s Kensington Gardens.
Peter Pan, presented by threesixty° Entertainment, is a visual marvel. They’ve transformed an empty lot next to the Chicago Tribune, known as the Freedom Center, into a tented venue and called it the threesixty° Theatre (not quite Kensington Gardens, but it’ll do). Before the show, you can have a drink at a high-top table next to the river, which was particularly lovely in yesterday’s sunshiny weather (though, they need to offer more adult beverages than just Miller Light and Miller High Life). Staff walk around politely ringing bells to alert you of the minutes before showtime.
The 1,300 seat theatre-in-the-round venue is wonder of architecture. Exterior scaffolding keeps the tent structure aloft without interior poles, so you get an unencumbered view of the stage and 360-degree screen where high-definition projections envelope you as the Darling children, after minimal coercion by Peter Pan, take flight to Neverland. And when they do take flight, it’s a dizzying, jaw-dropping piece of theatrical achievement.
But why read all this stuff when you can just see a video? This one has some good clips of the show, including shots of the clever puppet designs by Sue Buckmaster:
Unfortunately, beyond the stunning visuals, the show is a bit of a bore. I guess I forgot how little plot there is in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. Once they get to Neverland, it’s just a bunch of running about as they fight with Captain Hook and try to save Wendy (a smart and tough Evelyn Hoskins) and Tiger Lilly (Heidi Buehler).
Actually, there is a worthy plot in there, but adapter Tanya Ronder has failed to do anything exciting or daring with it, beyond leaning on flying sequences and CGI when the goings get tough. In fact, there was more emotional resonance in the cartoonish Cathy Rigby tour of the beloved musical adaptation, which I saw a handful of years ago.
This is especially evident in the leaden second act, when we’re taken underground to Tiger Lilly’s lair. Snore. The show never gets airborn again and the climactic fight scene between Pan and Captain hook, which one would expect to be thrillingly choreographed, has been staged in slow-mo Matrix-style. A directorial cop out.
While Ciaran Joyce is ideally suited as the infamous lost boy Peter, he’s nearly a secondary character in this unfocused adaptation. And Steven Pacey seems to be missing all the delicious fun that comes with the campy Captain Hook. He plays it for danger, but instead he comes off a creepy, but strangely nonthreatening, Jack Sparrow who, at one point, literally slices the throat of one of his sycophant pirate mates, making this a tough sell for youngsters.
The shining light in this production is audience favorite Emily Yetter as a wickedly naughty Tinker Bell. Sporting a pink tutu and sparkle lights, Yetter captured the carefree, devilish spirit of what this show could be.
I will say that the audience, made up mostly of families, seemed to enjoy themselves, so maybe I’ve grown up too much?
“Peter Pan” plays through June 19, with the possibility of extension through the summer, at the threesixty° Theatre located at the Freedom Center, 650 W. Chicago Avenue. More info here >
Side note: I happened to find myself sitting next to one of my absolute favorite Chicago actresses, Barbara Robertson, last night. A total thrill, and she’s just a lovely and classy lady who seemed genuinely shocked that some random person knew of her and her work. Can’t wait to see her in The Detective’s Wife at Writers’ Theatre — a new play by Keith Huff, who wrote A Steady Rain and is a writer on Mad Men. Performances begin May 24.