Maybe you think you’re not the audience for “Peter Pan,” Chicago Shakespeare’s 75-minute musical take on the classic story of boy who refuses to grow up. In Elliot Davis’ version (based on a book by Willis Hall, which was in turn adapted from J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play), “Peter Pan — A Musical Adventure” is squarely aimed at youngsters. Its protagonists are children. The bad guy is way more silly than scary. It is obviously not Shakespeare. It is not even Neil Simon.
At Chicago Shakespeare, it is also one of the most joyous and entertaining pieces of theater you’re apt to encounter this summer.
‘Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure’
When: Through Aug. 19
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, on Navy Pier
Tickets: $22 – $34
Run time: 75 minutes, with no intermission
Director/choreography Amber Mak has packed the show (music by George Stiles, lyrics by Anthony Drewe) with eye-popping flight sequences, bang-up dance numbers and emotionally true performances that’ll catapult you through all the feelz (as the young are wont to say). And unlike so many shows aimed at younger audiences, “Peter Pan” has a deep respect for the intelligence and the imagination of children as well as the depths of the source material. There’s no stupidity here, no pandering. There is simply marvelous storytelling, in the service of a tale that will intrigue tiny tots as well as their great-great grandparents.
It’s clear from the start that Chicago Shakespeare affords “Peter Pan” the same respect it affords The Bard. Jeff Kmiec’s set (aided by projections from Mike Tutaj) is a lavish delight, whether we’re in the Victorian-era London nursery of the Darling children (Elizabeth Stenholt as Wendy, the eldest; Carter Graf as youngest brother Michael and Cameron Goode as middle child John) or soaring past the second star on the right and straight on ‘til morning. There are marvels in the details from the Dome of Saint Petersburg towering outside the Darling’s window to the elaborate, massive wooden (looking) frame that encompasses the action.
When Peter Pan (Johnny Shea) makes his first entrance into the Darling nursery, you’ll be wonderstruck, even if already you know Peter doesn’t exactly travel by conventional streetcar. Shea has an insouciant gleam and an impishness that serves the role well, but he’s got layers lurking beneath the insistently childish exterior. When Wendy forces Peter to confront the drawbacks of never growing up, the stakes feel sky-high. The end of childhood and the loss of innocence usually arrive with equal parts wistful sorrow at the loss of what’s been and excitement about what’s to come next. “Peter Pan” ably captures both. Wendy and Peter’s attempts to settle the subject will put a lump in your throat and a tear in your eyes.
Mak’s supporting cast is ridiculously enjoyable, as is the character-deepening, plot-furthering score. Roberta Burke’s Mrs. Banks sets the bar among the stars with the gorgeous alto of “Just Beyond the Stars,” deploying a voice that’ll leave you longing for the reprise. “The Lost Boys Gang” is a rollicking adventure brought to rambunctious life by Peter’s gruff and scruffy gang of motherless Lost Boys (Colin Lawrence, Travis Austin Wright, Michael Kurowski, John Marshall Jr.)
That rapscallions’ romp is followed by another showstopper, courtesy of James Konicek’s Captain Hook. Usually, scenery-chewing is a bad thing. Not so with this one-handed pirate. Konicek doesn’t chew the scenery so much as he devours it like a famished crocodile, chomping away with the force of a thousand chainsaws taking to a pile of toothpicks and then spitting it back out into the atmosphere like pulverized sawdust being shot out of a water cannon, wholly infiltrated by laughing gas. All of which is to say he makes a diabolically good bad guy. Also, the world would surely be a nicer place if everybody just took a moment whenever they got angry and sang a verse of Hook’s “When I Kill Peter Pan,” a song that makes “Ride of the Valkyries” sound like Muzak. And as Hook’s right-hand man Smee, Sean Patrick Fawcett is the “plus one” we all long for.
There’s a “This American Life” episode called “Fiasco” that tells the story of a “Peter Pan” production gone horribly awry. Until now, that – to me anyway – has been the world’s most entertaining “Peter Pan,” followed by Keifer Sutherland’s seminal 1987 classic “Lost Boys.” In my heart of hearts, both have been replaced. Chicago Shakespeare’s “Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure” deserves an audience of all ages, all summer.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.