Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s “Peter Pan” has a strong voice, a big heart, bodies in near-constant but never chaotic motion, and just enough soul to draw a tear when we absorb its unspoken message: Refusing to grow up keeps you in a world of eternally youthful pleasure but exacts a spiritual price.
This musical, like the 1954 Broadway show it adapts, doesn’t aim for the depth of J.M. Barrie’s novel. But among the amusing and often airborne moments, we get a hint of poignance when the adults’ and children’s worlds become disconnected.
Surely you know the story: Peter Pan, who comes surreptitiously to the Darling household to listen to the mother tell stories, persuades the Darling kids to fly back with him to Neverland. Teenaged Wendy, the eldest, becomes a surrogate parent to the Lost Boys; Peter joins forces with Tiger Lily to defeat Captain Hook and his hapless crew. The one-handed pirate, a hambone with a cowardly streak, follows his own ticking clock into the belly of the unseen crocodile.
Director Jenny Male uses a framing device I don’t remember from the Mary Martin-Cyril Ritchard version, mounted on Broadway and telecast multiple times in my youth: Jane, the daughter of the grown-up Wendy, sits silently at the corner of the stage reading the tale of “Peter Pan.” Hannah Campos does a good job of miming, as she “enacts” things she reads while they come to life onstage. Her mother presumably wrote down her adventures in Neverland, inspiring the daughter to continue the cycle when she becomes a teen.
Male makes other innovations, too. Tinker Bell starts as a bobbing light accompanied by a tinkling sound but eventually appears as a mute human dancer, making it easier for small children in the audience to envision her.
Male cut the song “Oh, My Mysterious Lady” — possibly to keep the show from dragging for those same young kids — and removed all references to Indians. Tiger Lily’s warriors now seem to be a kind of South Sea amazons, a change that requires cutting a few lines of dialogue and the beginning of “Ugg-a-Wugg.”
Mostly, however, we get the full two-act show, complete with aerial stunts complex enough to let Peter turn somersaults. Renee Welsh-Noel gives us the right kind of Peter: confident but not smug, brash but not irritating, letting the vulnerability of the motherless boy seep through.
She’s an interesting contrast to Caleb Ryan Sigmon’s Hook, a bully who’s creepy and absurd at the same time. (Peter and the Lost Boys have Cockney accents, while Hook remains foppishly aristocratic; could this be social commentary?)
Robin Vest’s eye-catching set stresses the unreality of Neverland: giant flowers and insects, a subterranean dwelling place for the Lost Boys topped by a London Underground sign, a cheerful Jolly Roger that resembles a titanic paper pirate’s hat.
As much fun as these are, the production gives us the most pleasure when it’s most real, with the lonely Peter breaking down in front of Wendy because she’s now too old to return to Neverland. Whether or not the youngsters in the audience always understand what’s going on, their parents will.
When: Through Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Sensory-friendly performance at 7 p.m. Oct. 13.
Where: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.
Running Time: 140 minutes, one intermission.
Details: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
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