Playwright: James M. Barrie. At: Chicago Tribune Freedom Center, 650 W. Chicago. Tickets: 1- 888-772-6849; www.peterpantheshow.com; $20-$75. Runs through: June 19
There are two famous scores for musical versions of Peter Pan, one by Leonard Bernstein and one by Mark Charlap and Jule Styne. I wondered which one this new, multi-media musical production would use. The answer is neither. This Peter Pan is not a musical, but the original 1904 play with an orchestral score. It's Peter Pan pretty much as James M. Barrie wrote it, meaning it's on the talky and long side considering the family audience at which this show is pitched. The integrity of the treatment reminds one that Peter Pan really is for adults as much as for children when it's not boiled down or Broadway-ized. The somewhat-dark spirit of the work remains intact.
The gimmick this time is that it's presented in-the-round in a circus tent, allowing the use of 360-degree animated visuals projected on enormous screens surrounding the audience. You fly through the landmarks of London, dive under water in the Neverland lagoon and sink into Neverland's undulating Avatar-like jungle, all to the pre-recorded symphonic accompaniment of Benjamin Wallfisch's expansive music, reminiscent ( in a good way ) of John Williams. The peaked tent allows flying much higher than usual, with up to five people airborne at once, but it's not so different from flying you've seen before.
There are a few alterations and interpolations that are neither radical nor new, such as using a live actor as Tinkerbell rather than a ball of light ( Barrie wrote no dialog for Tink ) , using puppets for Nana ( the dog ) and the ticking crocodile, and including Barrie's later addition of a final scene in which Peter returns to the now-grown-up Wendy, reminding us that youth isin Barrie's words"innocent and heartless." More problematic are two dance additions in which John and Michael swim with mermaids ( acrobats using Spanish Cords ) and Tiger Lily teases Peter with an acrobatic dance. As this production is not at all a musical, both dances stick out like sore thumbs, adding minutes to the running time without adding value.
So, ultimately, the question is whether a handful of spectacular animated visuals and some extra-high flying are sufficient to justify the enormous complexity and expense of the production. I don't think they are. A dialogue-driven play is not easily compatible with a circus tent presentation. In this setting and with this technology, Peter Pan wants to be more fanciful and surprising than it is, but the play restricts it. The athletic, attractive and charming cast is not to be faulted. Anglo-Irish actor Ciaran Joyce is in command as Peter supported by Evelyn Hoskins as Wendy and Steven Pacey elegantly underplaying the double roll of Mr. Darling and Capt. Hook.