“I can see the string!” said a youngster in my row, as the title character came in for a soft landing on his first appearance in “Peter Pan.” But midway through that act, the boy sat saucer-eyed: The harness enabling Peter to soar over the Children's Theatre of Charlotte stage was quite forgotten.
That's the essence of this production, which is as ambitious (and to my mind, as successful) as last season's “The Wizard of Oz.” At first you may think about how the magic is accomplished; soon enough, you'll simply let the fairy dust be blown into your eyes.
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Alan Poindexter has directed a nearly full-length version of the 1954 Broadway musical, which adapted James Barrie's turn-of-the-century play. (I missed the song “Oh, My Mysterious Lady” and Hook's monologue about the boys' refusal to emulate him: “That's where the canker g-naws!”)
The flying is handsomely and amusingly handled; Nic Bryan's Peter seems to be taking wing without willing it, as naturally as a lark. But it's the part on the ground that really matters, and there the production scores with consistent comedy, one delightfully bone-jarring percussive dance, and a sweetness tempered faintly by the realization that none of us can live in Never Never Land forever – or should want to.
The characters feel like projections of Peter's imagination, adults who have remained oddly childish. Mr. Darling, who refuses to take nasty-tasting medicine and fusses over dog hair, morphs into a fey Captain Hook who's as giddy as Peter when showing off – there's nothing grown up about him. Blithe Mrs. Darling turns up later as Tiger Lily, the cartwheeling Indian princess in Peter's fantasy land. It's as if Peter told this story to Barrie in the first place, emphasizing elements of juvenile excitement, until Barrie took over to write a touchingly adult coda.
Bryan looks uncannily like a 22-year-old Jim Carrey and behaves with the same puckish impetuousness. His Peter is a selfish creature who doesn't comprehend his power to bewitch or hurt; Peter keeps an elfin distance from everyone else, and the mothering Wendy realizes almost at once that her ideas about a happy Neverland family must come to naught.
The other young actors seem more grown-up around Peter. Amanda Roberge's steadfast Wendy, Isaac Josephthal's sober John and Sam Faulkner's gravely thoughtful Michael balance the scale, and they're just as appealing as Peter in their quieter ways. Caroline Bower's effervescent Tiger Lily and Jon Parker Douglas' rollicking Hook are plenty of frantic fun, but we're happy in the end to settle in with the “real” children, who are just as happy to get back to London.
Compliments wouldn't be complete without a word for the ensemble: eight musicians in the pit, eight Lost Boys, eight piratical assistants to Hook and nine Indians, with a few actors doing double duty. Choreographer Ron Chisholm set “Ugg-a-Wugg” as an extended number where the cast hammers much of the set with sticks, and it's the highlight of the show.
But watch closely there: You can see Wendy staring jealously at Tiger Lily while beating half-heartedly on the stage, and the impish Peter kicking John's drum just out of reach simply to be naughty. From such details can magic be summoned.