Fort Worth — Who among us doesn’t love James Matthew Barrie’s classic tale, Peter Pan? It first appeared as a play, and has inspired Disney cartoons, movie and stage adaptations, and innumerable retellings for children. People of all ages identify with the boy who doesn’t want to grow up and the children who love him. Can Julian Butler’s recent musical adaptation Neverland, presented by Casa Mañana Children's Theatre and running through Feb. 18, fly to the heights of the original story?
Despite some problems within the writing and structure of the script, director Noah Putterman and music director James McQuillen combine a spectacular cast with outstanding production elements allowing Neverland to soar. Beautifully set, beautifully sung, and beautifully executed, Putterman’s production visually delights with its imaginative make believe retelling of the classic tale.
Upon entering the theatre, prepare to gasp with delight like my six-year-old critic at Michael Sabourin’s detailed set. Those familiar with Peter Pan will instantly spot the window where Pan might appear and Nanny’s giant dog bed. But where are the children’s beds? The toys for the nursery? This is not the Darling home we know. Tyler Lessin’s lighting design is nothing short of magical assisting us as we take the journey from a rundown apartment to the Neverland of our imaginations.
As the show opens, we meet 13-year-old Wendy (Mary McElree) as she embarks on “An Awfully Big Adventure.” Innately engaging, McElree connects with the audience as we see the world through her eyes and her lyrical voice. Due to her parents’ recent divorce, she is spending her first weekend at her father’s small apartment. McElree glides through her musical numbers with grace and poise as we observe her forming opinions about the world around her.
The connection and love Mr. Darling (Ricco Fajardo) and Wendy share is lovely to behold. Parents will identify with Fajardo’s performance as he shows pride and concern that his little girl is growing up. Fajardo and McElree delight as he reminds his daughter that things are simpler “When You’re a Kid.”
Their weekend derails when Mr. Darling is called away to handle a situation with his job. Enter Peter (Zak Reynolds). Instantly loveable, Reynolds’ physical performance keeps all eyes on him. We want to believe him as he works to convince Wendy that he is truly Peter Pan. Reynolds and McElree provide some of the most compelling moments in the show as they reenact discovering Neverland and its beauties and perils. Fajardo returns to the story as Captain Hook as the lines between reality and imagination are blurred. Fajardo is commanding as Hook, proving that he is “Good at Being Bad.”
Throughout the show, prepare to be charmed by the way ordinary objects come alive—crates become stepping stones, rolling chairs become flying birds, and blankets transform a coat tree into a ship. My 6-year-old critic and I adore the use of the puppet and doll for Hook’s victims as well as the perfume atomizer for Tinkerbell. Tammy Spencer’s modern costumes give us subtle clues into the characters’ personalities without detracting from the make believe. It’s amazing how many ways a robe can be utilized.
While the actors charm through the retelling of the familiar tale, there are nagging questions that remain unanswered in the script. My 6-year-old critic was very concerned. How did Mr. Darling participate in their pretend? Was he evil the entire time? Was Wendy in danger when she stayed with him? If his job was to take care of Peter, why would he pretend to try to hurt him? And why was he completely unaware of the make believe when he came back to Wendy?
Despite some problems within the source material, Neverland soars thanks to the power of imagination, captivating swordplay, and capable direction. I wouldn’t recommend bringing children younger than five, and I would be prepared for questions about real versus make believe and what actually happens to the characters. My 6-year-old critic came to the conclusion that he could simply create his own ending. Since seeing the show, our home has been filled with pirates, fairies, and sword fights.
In that respect, the magic of Neverland is alive and well.