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‘Peter Pan’ Soars at Laguna Playhouse

The tale of Peter Pan has been a beloved children’s story for more than a century. Penned as a play and then a novel by J.M. Barrie, “Peter Pan” centers on a free-spirited, mischievous young boy who has never grown up and has the ability to fly. He spends his days on the mythical island of Neverland as the leader of the Lost Boys, interacting with everyone from fairies (Tinkerbell), pirates, Native Americans, and even children from the world outside Neverland.

“Peter Pan” was turned into a 1954 musical starring Mary Martin, who won a Tony Award for playing the title role. The story has been retold in a handful of movies, but perhaps the most fascinating cultural phenomenon about Peter Pan is that the “Peter Pan’s Flight” attraction in Disneyland is one of the original rides when the park opened in 1955, and is still among the most popular in what Walt Disney’s dubbed “the happiest place on earth.”

This month, Laguna Playhouse is the happiest place on earth, because the playhouse is presenting a joyously silly and clever production of “Peter Pan & Tinker Bell: A Pirates’ Christmas.”

What sets this version apart form others is that “Peter Pan & Tinker Bell” is a “panto,” an English tradition that usually starts with a familiar fairy tale or a children’s story, then adds music, humor, contemporary references, and audience participation where booing the villain and cheering the hero is encouraged.

Pantos are perfect for all ages, with clever references flying over the heads of children to land squarely on the funny bone of adults.

“Peter Pan & Tinker Bell: A Pirates’ Christmas,” is described by the folks at Laguna Playhouse as “a singing, swashbuckling adventure performed in the high-flying style of a British holiday Panto. Take off on a wild quest with Tinker Bell, Wendy and Peter Pan as they try to put a stop to the plot of some dastardly pirates who plan to kidnap Peter as a present to Captain Hook. Filled with laughs, magic, dancers and contemporary songs.”

This is the fifth annual panto produced at Laguna Playhouse by Lythgoe Family Panto, and is as funny, if not funnier, than its predecessors.

It’s refreshing to see a theater filled with children and parents, yet not have the production cater solely to the younger set. This production captures the imagination of kids with colorful costumes and sets, and broad yet sincere acting that conveys the emotions of the story, while letting the audience in on the humorous elements, which are plenty.

Every actor on stage looks to be having fun, which isn’t hard to do given the updates to the characters. For example, Captain Hook’s three crewmen have the looks and mannerisms of Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and John Lennon, with the latter spouting dialogue from Beatles’ songs.

The cast is uniformly superb in their roles, and at improv when needed. Ben Giroux as Smee, Captain Hook’s right-hand man, is charming as he adlibs, interacts with the audience, and connects with jokes obviously meant for adults.

John O’Hurley, perhaps best known as playing J. Peterman on “Seinfeld,” is delightfully menacing as Captain Hook. He looks to be having a grand time, as does everyone else on stage.

And then there are the songs. Among the well-known tunes performed in the show to advance the plot are “In the Navy,” “Uptown Funk,” “Close to You,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” and even the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers.”

Many of the songs involve dancing, carried out splendidly by well-choreographed dancers who range in age from adults to what looks to be about 10 years old.

Overall, “Peter Pan & Tinker Bell: A Pirates’ Christmas” is a delightful holiday show that’s perfect for families, or adults who want to relive their childhood while having a laugh-filled afternoon or evening of theater.