The play “Peter Pan,” now more than 100 years old, isn’t just resilient; it’s bulletproof. Writer J.M. Barrie seemingly decided that he should just place everything a child might ever want to see on stage in a single play. There’s flying, running away from home, pirates, fairies, a magic island, a nanny that’s a dog, mermaids, Indians, swordfights and so on. It’s all held together by a sentimental (and distinctly adult) late-Victorian notion that children are intuitively more connected to the spiritual and the natural than adults, who gradually and inevitably lose this emotional center as they grow up.
It’s an idea that’s still very much with us, at least in children’s literature and movies. And though there’s something unfairly burdensome about the notion — Barrie even makes the life of one of the main characters depend on the audience’s belief in the supernatural — it’s a story that always seems to delight children. They always pass the little spiritual pop quiz by clapping for Tinker Bell.
Surprisingly, this weird, seemingly incoherent jumble of elements always works on stage. The play and its characters have become part of world culture. For an object lesson in why, one need look no further than the production at the Fox Theater through August 12. It’s one of the most charming, entertaining and successful family shows to appear on that stage in ages. It’s based on the 1954 Broadway production, which added some pleasant but middling show tunes to Barrie’s script
Former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby, who famously played the role in the Broadway revival in 1991, retains a lot of star power as Peter Pan. The gymnastic stunts throughout — there are splits and handstands and cartwheels — are all impressive, and the flying looks gorgeous. The technology has certainly improved. In the Fox version, I couldn’t see the wires as often as I did when I was a child (maybe my eyes have just gotten worse).
More importantly, Rigby’s flying has an effortless, spatial freedom. She zooms and flips in impressively three-dimensional, expansive arabesques, alighting momentarily on a narrow bedpost or thin railing before taking off again. A play that centers on a woman of a certain age playing a little boy is bound to have its odd moments, but there are surprisingly few here. Rigby keeps the performance and illusion nicely understated.
John Iacovelli’s set designs incorporate all sorts of interesting and trippy little nooks and crannies. Neverland is all ferny, mushroom-covered tufts, verdant vines and knobby trees. A unique drop screen is utilized for each scene change, all nearly as imaginative, evocative and lovely as the scenery behind it (though the initial one, representing a London skyline, looks too similar to the illustrations for the Harry Potter books: right city, wrong flying kid).
Rigby has created a winning performance out of athleticism and heartfelt sincerity, but Brent Barrett delivers a memorable Captain Hook by moving in the opposite direction, making the villain an embodiment of implacable self-regard and sneering irony. On opening night, when his entrance was booed, he turned to the audience and gave a delightfully dismissive (and thoroughly appropriate) “Oh, grow up.”
Grow up? Maybe later. But while “Peter Pan” is on stage at the Fox, you should definitely stay a child. Or at least find one to bring. I guarantee they’ll clap.