By the time the title character takes to the skies in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Peter Pan, the effect, while wondrous, is also somewhat superfluous, since the presentation had already been airborne for a good 40 minutes beforehand, and will continue to be for the two hours that follow. If ever a production deserved to be called "ethereal," it's this one. But even that adjective doesn't suggest just how enthralling this Peter Pan truly is.
Considering the deeply impressive talent, commitment, and invention on display in director/choreographer Jim Hesselman's musical, Circa '21's latest will no doubt prove magical no matter which performance you attend. Yet if you weren't present on opening night, Lord almighty how I wish you had been, because the only thing that might've been more thrilling than the show itself was the experience of sitting in that audience.
Over two decades of Circa '21 productions, I'd never before witnessed a crowd paying attention to the proceedings with such glorious, heart-stopping silence as they did on Friday. It was as though every patron in that house - and the majority of us were well past 30 - were five years old again, and being read our favorite story by our favorite storyteller. (For most of Peter Pan's length, no one so much as coughed, perhaps for fear of breaking its delicate spell - the way you don't want to accidentally wake yourself from a beautiful dream.) Beyond the quiet, the only sounds heard were the frequent, raucous laughs and equally frequent, hearty applause - though if you listened carefully, you could probably make out the occasional sniffle, too, as this enchanting, hilarious Peter Pan is also almost ridiculously moving. The ovation that greeted its curtain call was so powerful and sincere you felt it could go on forever. Moreover, you wanted it to.
To be sure, miracles were anticipated right off the bat, given the gorgeous rear curtain of illuminated stars and the fairy-tale perfection of designer Susan Holgersson's nursery set that featured center-stage windows some 20 feet high. (Holgersson goes on to top herself with her extraordinarily clever, playful Neverland fortress and pirate ship.) It only takes a few beats to correctly presume that Jim Hutchison's lighting and Greg Hiatt's costuming will be sensational throughout, and a few more to predict that the portrayals will be focused and imaginative. Young actors Zach Finn, Tanner Konrardy, and the remarkably gifted and poised Lauren Van Speybroeck are blessedly real, Andrea Moore is a lovely, sensible Mrs. Darling, Tom Walljasper provides an ingratiatingly eccentric Mr. Darling, and Adam Galarza, bless his fur-covered heart, is adorable and funny as the pooch/nursemaid Nana.
But if there are any lingering doubts as to how breathtaking this Peter Pan is going to be, they'll likely vanish the second Peter Pan him(her)self leaps into view. With her hair cropped short and her alternately nimble and impetuous movements exuding tomboy-ish joie de vivre, Brittany Church easily looks the part, and given the radiant purity and Broadway-belter panache of her vocals, definitely sings it. Yet there's not a moment here in which Church doesn't also appear to be actively living the role; her every emotion - from Peter's ache for a mother to his above-ground exhilaration to his anguish at Tinkerbell's potential demise - is richly, deeply felt, and the instant she arrives, an already-inspired production blasts off into the stratosphere.
For understandable reason, Friday's crowd went happily berserk during the flying effects, especially when, in a jaw-dropping bit, Michael's top hat was placed upon his head mid-air. But nearly everything in this Peter Pan elicited exquisite joy. The phenomenal laser-light and stage effects that enabled Tinkerbell to push a rocking chair and roll a ball across the floor. The endlessly watchable antics of the pirate brigade - a superb comic ensemble including Galarza, Brad Hauskins, Steve Quartell, Jeremy P. Plyburn, Tristan Layne Tapscott, and George Schulz, the latter divinely dim-witted as Smee. The giggly-creepy reptilian crawl of Autumn Loose's crocodile. The dazzlingly choreographed melee between the Lost Boys and the Indians. The romantic rapture of Peter's "Neverland" solo and the freewheeling fun of the percussive "Ugh-a-Wug," a number so thunderously good that Friday's audience applauded it for a full minute. (That might not sound long, but try it some time.)
And then there's Walljasper's Captain Hook. So blissfully over-the-top that he's a figure of constant delight, yet so unapologetically evil that he's never less than a genuine threat, the actor walks an intensely fine line between caricature and fully shaped human being, and his wittily deadpan responses to his crew's stupidity couldn't be improved on - this might qualify as the performance of Walljasper's career. To date. (At one point, Hook bellows, "I'm the greatest villain of all time!" No argument here.) Circa '21's Peter Pan doesn't just fly; it soars, and should be mandated viewing for every adult who wants, for just a few hours, to feel like a kid again. I couldn't love this show more if it had given birth to me.
For information and tickets, call (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visit Circa21.com.