Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure

Music by George Stiles, lyrics by Antony Drewe, version by Elliot Davis based on the book by Willis Hall and the story by J M Barrie
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois

Wendy (Elizabeth Stenholt) and Peter (Johnny Shea) Credit: Liz Lauren
Captain Hook (James Konicek) and Smee (Sean Patrick Fawcett) Credit: Liz Lauren
The Storyteller (Regina Altay, center) gathers the ensemble (Christina Hall, Sean Patrick Fawcett, John Marshall Jr., Travis Austin Wright, Michael Kurowski, and Colin Lawrence) Credit: Liz Lauren

Over the years, Peter Pan has become a holiday staple, doing its best to match A Christmas Carol in terms of theatrical popularity.

That is particularly the case in the United States, where pantomime continues to remain an arcane British ritual that always defies understanding and is almost unknown to the paying public.

This particular production, directed and choreographed by Amber Mak, was recorded in front of a live audience in 2018—judging by the clothing, on a warm day in summer.

Nobody could question the credentials of the creative team. On the music side, Stiles and Drewe are perhaps now best known for their contributions to the recent revival of Mary Poppins. The book was written by Willis Hall, the man behind Billy Liar and Whistle Down the Wind, while the Scottish baronet J M Barrie is most famous for well, as it happens, Peter Pan. Their work has been put together in a new script from Elliot Davis, whose name may be familiar to Londoners for his work with Stiles and Drewe on Soho Cinders.

What they present on Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s intimate thrust stage, embossed with a symbolic compass and utilising Jeff Kmiec’s simple designs, is a likeable, 80-minute-long musical version of J M Barrie’s timeless 1902 story of a boy who is afraid to grow up and the trouble that he causes to the Darling family.

As we discover from the opening exchanges, what might otherwise have been a conventional, upper-class British family is nothing of the kind.

In this colour- and gender-blind production, while the parents (Roberta Burke and James Konicek) are atypically dull, the older children, bossy Wendy, John and Michael (Elizabeth Stenholt Cameron Goode and carter Graf), have imagination.

As ever, their dutiful canine nanny, Nana, is a delight, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis amusing rather than convincing in a shaggy costume designed by Theresa Ham that looks to be made substantially from rags.

However, the magic in any production of Peter Pan will only be injected with the airborne arrival of the titular hero, played by Johnny Shea in scaly camouflage outfit, preceded by a suitably incandescent Tinkerbell.

The story will be known to all but the smallest viewers and therefore the attractions need to come from production qualities.

These peak as Peter and the children fly off to 'Neverland', excitedly singing about the adventures ahead while engaged in gentle aerobatics in front of an impressive light and video show. On the musical front, the catchiest tune is an egotistical duo between Peter and Wendy “The Cleverness of Me”.

The advent of the lost boys, followed by a quartet of pirates in thrall to the physically challenged leader, splendidly and chillingly portrayed by the aforementioned James Konicek, adds an extra dimensional of excitement to the lives of the children and, by extension, their worried parents and nanny. This is greatly enhanced by the presence of a shadowy, ticking croc.

Pleasingly, while the overall atmosphere is jaunty, the company does not stint on some of the tale’s darker moments and philosophical undercurrents asking viewers to consider the nature of childhood and what lies beyond.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher