PCPA’s Peter Pan Hooks the Audience from the Start

It would be safe to say that most children, and by extension most adults, know the story of Peter Pan. Peter is the boy who can fly, the boy who never grows up, the boy who fights pirates and leads you on adventures through Neverland. You may have read the book, you may have seen the movie or play, but have you experienced the story firsthand?

PCPA (Pacific Conservatory Theatre) has taken on the task of not only translating J.M. Barrie’s beloved children’s tale, but also a Tony Award-winning musical that has been performed around the world for over sixty years. Since it’s likely that many theater-goers have seen some version of Peter Pan in their lifetime, PCPA made it their goal to create something magical and immersive to set their production apart.

“We wield that potent power of storytelling with great respect, enthusiasm, and belief. And that’s part of the magic you can expect to witness here,” says Director Mark Booher. “The designers are creating an environment so that the actors and the audience can have the most lively interchange possible. Our audience is going to be in contact with the play in a way that we don’t often get to experience.”

Peter Pan opens on the familiar nursery of the three Darling children, Wendy, John, and Michael as they get ready for bed. Mother finds a stray shadow and puts it in a drawer, the children run about, and Father laments, “Sometimes I think it’s a mistake to have a dog for a nurse” as a boy in the front row laughs enthusiastically at the dog/maid and everyone else joins in. This, of course, is just the preamble to the Big Moment when Peter Pan himself descends from the sky down into nursery. Even though you know it’s coming, it still gives you chills.

For all Peter’s crowing about Neverland it seems ages (if you have childlike impatience) before he teaches the Darlings how to fly there. If he wants Wendy to be mother to the Lost Boys, tell them stories, and make them pockets, he’d better be quick with that fairy dust! But the waiting pays off in Big Moment #2 when Peter, Wendy, John, and the absolutely adorable Michael fly up and around the theater, out and over the audience, and sing “I’m Flying”. In that moment every person in the theater becomes a child again and, as promised, the walls come down and you are a part of Neverland.  The adventure has begun!

Once you’ve been transported to Neverland, you get to find out why the stage extends out into the audience in two places. Lost Boys, Brave Girls, and Pirates run around the stages and up and down the aisles, putting them all within arm’s reach. In fact, at one point Smee (Amani Dorn) even side-steps his way down a row of seats like he was just coming back from using the restroom before climbing onto one of the stages! When does that ever happen?

The Brave Girls were a bit unexpected if you’re more familiar with the Disney cartoon, the Lost Boys were just the right balance of innocent and rambunctious, and Tinker Bell with her little green light and tinkling sound effects was full of enough personality that you can almost forgive her for having Wendy shot with an arrow (one of the more morbid bits as Wendy comes down from the rafters looking somewhat dead).

The songs in Peter Pan are catchy (“I’ve Gotta Crow”) and fun (“I Won’t Grow Up”) and even touching (“Distant Melody”) and each musical number outdoes the last. When Hook and his pirates come on stage it’s as though it’s been shot with a bolt of electricity. The pirates are frightening and hilarious and have a very interesting assemblage of facial hair. Hook (who looks remarkably like Father and is played by the magnetic George Walker) is a character you really can’t help but love and his penchant for dancing will have you clapping your hands with glee as he and his crew waltz and do the tango.

Chynna Walker, as Peter, has done Cathy Rigby and Sandy Duncan proud with her portrayal and Madison Davis, as Wendy, could have a future career as a Disney princess or Alice in Wonderland she’s so charming. As always, PCPA is a master at creating strong ensembles.  

Of course, Peter Pan wouldn’t be Peter Pan without Neverland and once again the set designers have outdone themselves. Every element they’ve created, from the floor to the extra stages to the moveable set pieces play a part in making you forget you’re sitting in a fairly small theater. The costumes are gorgeous and creative (spoiler alert: Peter doesn’t wear green tights in this version) and add the final layer to the stunning production.

After much capturing and marauding and singing and dancing, Peter battles Hook and eventually the Darling children, who have started to forget their own real mother, find their way back home. Years later, we learn, Peter comes back and Wendy has grown up, much to his dismay. She wants to go back to Neverland with Peter, and we want her to as well, but she can’t. So her daughter goes instead, to the place where dreams are born.

Peter Pan, above all else, makes you believe you’ve had an adventure, if only for a few hours, and leaves you with a glimmer of hope that that youthful magic hasn’t gone away, it just needs a little pixie dust to kick-start it.

PCPA Peter Pan runs until December 23rd at the Marian Theatre. Visit www.pcpa.org or call (805) 922-8313 for ticket information.

Rebecca Ross reviewing