Review: Chicago Shakespeare Theater Captures the Magic in Peter Pan–A Musical Adventure

—Last month, I was at Chicago Shakespeare Theater to see Macbeth, a brooding, dark tale produced at the Yard, their newest and most versatile stage. Co-directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller), the show was—appropriately enough–infused with magic as Ian Merrill Peakes's Macbeth decends deeper and deeper into madness. Peter Pan Wendy (Elizabeth Stenholt) tells the Lost Boys an engaging bedtime story. Photo by Liz Lauren. This summer, Chicago Shakes shifts gears entirely, leaving all but the magic behind as it presents Peter Pan—A Musical Adventure on its mainstage through August 19. Directed and choreographed by Amber Mak, the family-friendly story of the boy who won't grow up is presented with polished, clever staging and child-like wonder that'll have even the most cynical among us clapping to keep Tinkerbell alive. Mak and her creative team have kept the J.M. Barrie classic essentially intact (save a welcome cut of the infamous Native American scene which, let's just say...hasn't aged well); the sweetly expressive music by George Stiles and simple but thoughtful lyrics by Anthony Drew complement the timeless story of innocence and friendship. The production takes full advantage of the theater-in-the-round, with lost boys and pirates rushing up and down the aisles throughout and staging that takes us from London to Neverland and back again. As the narrator (Rengin Altay) begins the story, Mrs. Darling (Roberta Burke) puts the Darling children—Wendy (Elizabeth Stenholt), John (Cameron Goode) and Michael (Carter Graf)—to bed with a sweet lullaby. Burke's voice is equal parts warm and soaring, setting an encouraging precedent for the performances to come. Tinkerbell, traveling pinpoint of light that wheels around the stage and lights up various set-pieces, arrives as the children doze off, alighting in the chest where Peter Pan himself (Johnny Shea) can find the shadow he's lost. And just like that, Pan flies in (yes, there's flying) full of youthful energy, optimism and pluck. Before long, he's brought all three Darling children back to Neverland to care for the rest of the Lost Boys (who dance like they're Newsies) and we meet the dastardly, not-terribly-threatening-unless-you're-5 Captain Hook. Decked out in red brocade and a big ol' wig, Hook—like the rest of the show—is about as traditionally interpreted as it gets. Which isn't a criticism; there's a reason Peter Pan is a classic, after all. While Hook plots his revenge on Pan for losing his hand, Wendy grows weary of the whole "never growing up" thing and all is not ideal in Peter's paradise. But, as you probably already know, even Hook can't compete with Peter Pan's loyalty and wit. In order to provide as authentic a review as possible, I invited along a couple friends and their 5-year-old son, hoping for a bit of insight into the production through his eyes. Considering they were wide as dinner plates the whole time, it's safe to say he was impressed. Though he immediately noted the rope making Peter's flying possible (which sends Shea on whirling, looping aerial jaunts he handles with aplomb), he was nevertheless adorably awed by the whole thing. Turns out, I needn't have worried about getting just one child's honest review of the production. Seeing Peter Pan—A Musical Adventure won't be your typical grown-up evening at the theater, as this audience squirms, wiggles and giggles a bit more than average. Which is as it should be for a show that's not only the perfect introduction for future musical theater lovers but a treat for those of us who've grown up a bit since our first show, too. Peter Pan—A Music Journey runs through August 19 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Courtyard Theater, on Navy Pier. Tickets are $22 for children 12 and under, $34 otherwise. Learn more and get tickets here. Did you enjoy this review? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!
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Lisa Trifone