BWW Review: PETER PAN & TINKER BELL Panto Flies Into Laguna Playhouse
The family-friendly fun of Lythgoe Family Productions' annual holiday British Panto returns to the Laguna Playhouse, this time with the reimagined Yuletide re-telling of PETER PAN & TINKER BELL: A PIRATE'S CHRISTMAS, which continues through December 29, 2019 in the city of Laguna Beach.
Designed primarily as kid-centric entertainment---where kids are encouraged to cheer loudly for the heroes and hiss and boo fiercely for villains---this theatrical tradition of the British Panto takes huge artistic liberties with well-known fairy tales peppering them with meta, often fourth-wall breaking jokes (both of the child-friendly and adult-puns variety) as well as pop songs more akin to hit radio or streaming services than musical theater. They've even given room during the second act to corral a few lucky golden-ticket holding kids (ranging from 4 - 12) a chance to go on stage to lead the whole room in a brief sing-along of a holiday song with new custom lyrics.
Basically, it's a theatrically-blessed kids' birthday party on lots of sugar and caffeine. A nightmare scenario for some, a joyous environment for others. Luckily, my heart hasn't completely grown up that much, so for the most part, even the cynical me had a smile the whole time, even through the cringe-y parts of unchecked cultural appropriation.
This year's Orange County show re-sets the well-known J.M. Barrie story to Christmas time for no other reason than to make it appropriate for the time of the year, where a magical ageless flying boy named Peter Pan (played by the adorable Lincoln Clauss) has come to visit the Darling children's nursery with his sidekick fairy Tinker Bell (the spunky Ashley Argota) to look for his runaway shadow.
The commotion wakes up the eldest of the three Darling children, Wendy (the lovely-voiced Bryce Charles) who is awed by the site of Peter. Tinker Bell, though, is slightly jealous of the attention Peter is showering on this non-flying human. Pretty soon Wendy and her younger brothers John (Dakota Lotus) and Michael (Daniel Peters) are convinced to go with them to Never Land so Wendy could be the "mother" to all the Lost Boys like Peter Pan who refuses to grow up.
Back in their magical land, however, the wicked Captain Hook (the perfectly hammy John O'Hurley from Seinfeld fame) is always trying to come up with ways to finally beat his nemesis Peter Pan (understandable, considering Peter cut off his hand and fed it to a crocodile that now wants the rest of Hook). Together with his comical henchman Smee (the hilarious Ben Giroux) and a trio of bumbling pirates that randomly and inexplicably mirror the personalities of Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and John Lennon (Baden Silva, Casá G., and Mason Trueblood), Hook devises a plan that involves kidnapping Princess Tiger Lily (Clarice ORdaz) and use her as bait to lure Peter into a trap.
As most know, Hook's schemes never go quite according to plan because Peter somehow always rules the day.
Meanwhile Wendy arrives to take on the role of "mother" (and maybe, in her starry-eyed thinking that Peter could play daddy) only to realize that she is homesick for her life as a kid with her own mother back at home. But she can't just go home quite yet... because Hook has kidnapped the Lost Boys and her brothers!
Unabashedly goofy and silly---and very proud of it---these Lythgoe Panto productions are cheeky but not too bawdy for even the youngest audience members in attendance (the jokes meant for "adults" will totally go over the younger set's heads).
Really young kids and pre-pubescent boys and girls will love the broad comedy and the outlandish behavior, while the more savvy teens and their oh-so-brave parents who decided to take their kids to this will enjoy the cleverly-repurposed pop soundtrack that includes nostalgia-baiting tunes as well as contemporary current hits. The show opens with a rather lovely duet between Argota's Tinker Bell and Charles' Wendy on "Nature Boy"---both setting up each gal's feelings for that hottie in green tights.
You pretty much get the sense of where the show's head is at when it comes to music when the show then goes into its first setting, London with Bruno Mars' "Uptown Funk" as the first dance number. From there, the songs range from oldies like "Hooked on a Feeling," "Close To You," "Think" and, uh, "In The Navy" (sung by the Pirates, natch), and some more recent chart toppers like Rachel Platten's anthemic "Fight Song." The show uses (and revisits often) the Polar Express song "Believe" sung by Josh Groban as an overarching musical theme throughout the two-act show.
A wonderful surprise comes during the second half when the normally less important character of John gets to move forward center stage to sing his own heartfelt ballad. For his part, Lotus---equipped with a truly wonderful singing voice---wowed the audience with his take on Michael Bublé's "Home." So that the audience won't forget that this, yes, takes place during the holidays, they've also inserted "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" for good measure.
Overall, PETER PAN & TINKER BELL---directed by BT McNicholl and featuring choreography by Kitty McNamee---is an amusing, energetic Panto, though admittedly not as over-the-top as the two previous holiday Panto's that I have seen staged here at the Laguna Playhouse. Still, the show had me smiling the whole time, even with the screams of what seemed like a thousand kids surrounding me beating my eardrums into submission. Those older than 21, surprisingly enough, have lots to like here, from the show's cheeky way of using pop songs to advance the, uh, "plot," to the way Giroux bangs out a few funny lines just for the more mature members of the crowd.
Those seeking something deep and meaningful here may walk away a bit dissatisfied, because, as I've stated up front, this Panto is skewed towards the kids, which means you get G-rated jokes mashed with some amusing one-liners here and there for only the adults in the room to get. Even its colorful and vibrant sets designed by Ian Wilson, costumes designed by Kim Critchley, and the lighting design by Chris Wilcox all evoke a sense of child-like aesthetics that pop with a youthful glow.
But the show's best aspects---aside from being enjoyable for families and the little ones---are the singing performances by its talented young cast all accompanied by one-man-band/musical director Doug Peck. Clauss, Argota, Lotus, and Charles all have truly bright futures in grander musicals to look forward to judging by their work here.
O'Hurley, as expected, exudes great mastery of being both comically classy and being comically buffoonish, all in service of providing laughs. His Hook is reminiscent of countless others who have donned the outfit, chewing the scenery for all its glorious worth. The show's unofficial "host" Giroux makes for a great comic foil, whipping out snarky lines (some improvised on the spot) with rapid fire speed. Ordaz and fellow "Indians" Raymond Ejiofor and Angel Inniss make the most of their iffy, dated characters that, uh, yes, still needs a sensitivity update. Little guy Peters brings cuteness overload as do the Lost Boys played by two "teams" of alternating child performers cast locally.
If you're looking for a local, holiday-themed theater piece that's fun for the family---especially the little ones---then this Panto may be the right one to open up your window to let in.