Classic story meets CGI

The boy who never grew up is more than 100 years old, but new fans are now discovering him in Costa Mesa.

One of the most technologically advanced pieces of theater in history has arrived at the Orange County Performing Arts Center — seats, stage and all.

A new tented production of "Peter Pan" has drawn acclaim worldwide for its 360-degree computer-generated-imagery backdrop, stunning flying sequences and focus on traditional storytelling.

"Peter Pan" is a great unifier, show co-producer Matthew Churchill said: perfect for kids who are more interested in "Avatar" and video games than live theater. The gang's all here: Capt. Hook, the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily and the Darling family are joined by traditional puppets.

"It's almost a bit like the kids are taking the parents to see CGI, and parents are taking kids to see 'Peter Pan,'" Churchill said. "It really has something for people of all ages. We kind of say that you can read the show on various levels. For Mom and Dad, we stick to the original story."

Churchill said the "theater-in-the-round" aspect of the tent makes every seat a prime one; compared to a standard theater with 1,300 seats and a stage at one end, the seats for "Peter Pan" all are wrapped around a circular stage.

"Our back row, if in a Broadway theater, would be right where the most expensive seats are," Churchill said. "The CGI goes all the way around."

With the 360-degree projections, "When they fly to Neverland, the whole audience can fly with them," Churchill said.

Such technology, although it comes at a heavy price, has reaped huge rewards.

"We raised the money at the worst possible moment of the credit crisis, but we raised it when a lot of people couldn't raise money for their shows because the idea kind of sold itself," Churchill said. "No one has done a big, new 'Peter Pan' in a long time in England."

The show opened to record advances, and quickly became a sold-out phenomenon. Even Charles, the prince of Wales, and Camilla, duchess of Cornwall, made an appearance at a gala event, at which Churchill and Burnell were responsible for a cast meet-and-greet.

"Prince Charles had some great jokes," Churchill said. "It was great fun."

Famed luxury jeweler Van Cleef and Arpels donated $36 million of diamonds and emeralds to use as table decorations, and Royal Protection squad staff were positioned in trees and throughout the park. Bearskin hats and trumpet fanfare were de rigueur.

The initial goals weren't nearly as lofty as the final production ended up. Churchill wanted to stage a large theatrical piece in Kensington Gardens, near the eponymous palace in London. Co-producer Charlie Burnell suggested "Peter Pan," as author J.M. Barrie came up with many of the iconic book's characters and themes while walking in the gardens.

From there, they decided that when Peter Pan flies to Neverland, they didn't want the flying actor to hit any poles — so they made the revolutionary idea to put them on the outside.

"It was an excellent idea, and we managed to get a very famous theater designer," Churchill said: William Dudley, who has been responsible for projection backdrops in shows like Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Woman in White." Churchill joked that the only Brit with more theater awards than Dudley was famed actress Judy Dench.

Four-hundred square miles of London were modeled and rendered, and a flight path for the children was generated — along with other projects including an underwater sequence. In all, the projections are completely immersive.

Churchill said the divide between traditional theater and high-tech, whiz-bang artistry was a delicate one.

"Theater is about actors and the stories that we tell, so we didn't want the CGI to upstage the show, but there are moments where we say to ourselves, 'Let's have some fun,'" Churchill said. "We did a lot of workshops to make sure it was a great piece of theater, and at the same time the work was fun; it was actually rather hard work, but it kind of fell together quite easily."

The director was adamant that the flying actors' harnesses be visible at all times, in order to keep the sense of traditional theater intact. To that end, the flying actors must be in top physical form. The harness design was intended to allow the actors to perform all the cool tricks that children would do if they could fly, like somersaults, Churchill said.

"The kind of flying that we do needs a very high core body strength," Churchill said. "In the story, it's magic that's holding the whole body up. Two wires support you in the middle, and you have to look like your whole body length is supported."

Churchill said the show ended up in Orange County through Center Executive Vice President Judy Morr, who saw the show at its run in San Francisco. The producers had identified Orange County as an ideal place to bring the show as it's known for being family-oriented, Churchill said, but everything came together upon their meeting Morr.

"It was one of those really happy coincidences, because being outside the Orange County Performing Arts Center is a perfect spot," he said.

Just getting the tent to North America was no small feat: 500 tons of theater and props were loaded into 25 trucks, deposited on a ship in January, ushered through the Panama Canal, and finally arrived in the United States in April.

"We watched 25 truckloads of our precious tent and props track slowly around the world on the Internet," Churchill said. "It's the first time a tented show of this size has ever come to America from Europe."

It's also the first time such a show has debuted first on the West Coast, rather than in New York; to date, more than 100,000 people have seen it.

He said the producers plan a three-year run in the United States, and a second "Peter Pan" will be opening in Australia next year.

Churchill said the show has exceeded all of their earliest hopes and expectations.

"It was a large group of very, very clever people who made it possible, but now we look back and draw our breaths and say, 'Wow, we did it.'"

If You Go

What: "Peter Pan"

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Previews through tomorrow; regular performances through Nov. 21

Cost: $40 and up

Information: (714) 556-2787 or

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