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New 'Peter Pan' soars, but never bores

Lawrence Toppman
ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

The moment a neophyte commits to dance, he knows two things: Every body has limits it can never transcend, and the day will come when it no longer defeats gravity.

So what could be more natural for a former dancer than to make a ballet of James Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” the story of a boy who flies and never grows old?

Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of N.C. Dance Theatre, has given us an evening of unalloyed joy. Not for him the darker psychological undercurrent of the original novel, the knowledge that no human being can be complete without lasting relationships and deeper maturity. This is a Neverland dampened by no clouds, where the bright sun beams on all (even the crocodile, whom we’ll come to later).

In this happy world, Peter’s exuberance never fails him. Tinker Bell may briefly be jealous but is always forgiving. Captain Hook becomes more of a goofy fop than a gloomy foe. The kidnapped Wendy, taken by Hook’s pirates, fears them no more than you or would yipping Chihuahuas.

The result, set aptly to music that Rossini wrote for other reasons, stays spiritually airborne whether the dancers are flying or not. (And they do fly: Frederick Leo “Pete” Walker II even does aerial somersaults in the title role.) The two-act piece lasts 100 minutes, never wearing out its welcome, and ends with a kind of harmony Barrie never imagined but Bonnefoux pulls off.

Howard Jones’ sets, which fly and slide smoothly on and off the Knight Theater stage, elicited “Oooohs” Thursday: The pirate ship that comes together in Act 2 rivals the Lost Boys’ treetop home for ingenuity. The costumes by A. Christina Giannini, also purpose-built for this show, vary from Tiger Lily’s opulence to the Darling family’s staid Victoriana.

But the ballet must rise (so to speak) or fall on joie de vivre, and it takes many forms here: Athleticism for Walker, flitting energy for Sarah Hayes Watson’s Tinker Bell, exaggerated grandeur for Addul Manzano’s Hook, beaming buoyancy for Jamie Dee’s Wendy, raucous mock-chaos for the pirates (including women as tattooed as the men – very true to life).

Traditionalists may fidget at some liberties, especially with the adorable crocodile (James Cleary). He moonwalks, adjusting his gloves like a gentleman – shouldn’t that be one glove? – waves to the audience, smooches Peter Pan and breakdances. (I will overlook his Gangnam-style moment.) By that point, we’re so thoroughly charmed that anything goes.

The show makes only one small misstep. It follows a thrilling climax, set to the frenzy of the “William Tell” overture, with a peaceful coda we don’t need, because we already know what’s going to happen. Note to future choreographers: Nothing can ever follow the “William Tell” overture.

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