On Theater: 'Peter Pan' a soaring spectacle at OCPAC

Look, up in the sky. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's ... "Peter Pan."

Yes, the forever-young hero of J.M. Barrie's ever-popular children's story is back, and this time — with the help of some well-placed wires — he really flies. The spectacle, which had been billed to run through Nov. 21, has now been extended till Jan. 2, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

The flying, while impressive, isn't the most eye-catching aspect of the visiting production from England's threesixtyº theater. As its name implies, the background is 360 degrees around the audience, altering with breathtaking abandon as Peter and the Darling kids wing their way to Neverland.

This version of "Peter Pan" is mostly familiar, with a few new wrinkles in the current adaptation by Tanya Ronder. It's calculated to open young playgoers' eyes wide with its aerial and atmospheric splendor, while the actors on the ground zealously bring their characters over the proverbial top.

Director Ben Harrison and William Dudley — who designed the setting, costumes and 3-D production — have created a wondrous Neverland that begins where the vintage Disney animated movie, the underrated Steven Spielberg version ("Hook") and various other stage, screen and television productions left off. The circular stage smoothly transforms from a nursery to a wooded hideaway to a pirate ship, while the characters emerge from all directions, including up from below.

The title role of the boy sprite who never grew up is played with glorious gusto by Nate Fallows, who soars to new heights and meets his match in the form of Wendy, the eldest of the three Darling kids, saucily played by Abby Ford.

But for sheer show-stealing dominance, the show's true centerpiece is Jonathan Hyde as the treacherous Captain Hook (as well as the Darling's dad). Hyde brings a sinister sophistication to a role that invites — nay, encourages — egregious overplaying.

Antony Strachan charms as an audience-friendly pirate, the benevolent Smee. Heidi Buehler displays balletic grace as the Indian princess Tiger Lily. And Itxaso Moreno gives us a very different Tinker Bell, a surly sprite with the appearance and attitude of a street urchin.

The only aspect of the show that doesn't fully work is the concept of Nana, the Darlings' dog, as a puppet, presented Lion King-style with a human handler. An actor in canine costume would have better preserved the illusion.

"Peter Pan" will be in town for another month, offering families abundant opportunity to share the experience (there's a picnic area just outside the tent). It's the ageless story told in an exciting new format.

There are revivals, and revivals. But when a musical more than 60 years old can burrow into our soul with the impact of the current production of "South Pacific" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, that's less of a revival and more of an event.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical set in World War II's Pacific theater first surfaced in 1949, just a few years after the events it depicts. The musical was a Broadway smash, featuring a score packed with hummable hit songs, and came to the silver screen in the mid-1950s with the marvelous Mitzi Gaynor sporting the uniform originally donned by Mary Martin.

The current touring production, beautifully directed by Bartlett Sher, blends mid-20th century drama and comedy with 21st century pizzazz and polish. It boasts one of the finest scores ever composed for a musical, and these songs come across the footlights with poignancy and power from a cast rich in vocal excellence.

The story primarily revolves around Nellie Forbush, a green Navy nurse from Little Rock, Ark., looking for a different atmosphere from that of her prosaic home town — and finding it in the arms of an older French planter. But her ingrained Southern prejudice stands between her and happiness.

The role of Nellie is magnificently rendered by Carmen Cusack, with a strong Ozark accent that she incorporates into her musical numbers. She enriches both the comic and dramatic aspects of her character with her vibrant enthusiasm and a deep sense of conviction.

As the Frenchman, Emile, David Pittsinger brings a powerful operatic voice to the production, rendering such favorites as "Some Enchanted Evening" and the bitter "This Nearly was Mine" with stalwart maturity, the latter number drawing the night's heaviest applause. He even impresses when attempting to imitate a "knucklehead" like his beloved.

Anderson Davis as Cable, the Marine Corps lieutenant on a perilous mission, is strong and determined, melting in the arms of the beautiful local girl Liat (Sumie Maeda). His romantic ballad "Younger than Springtime" surges with passion and his gritty declaration "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" stirs the social conscience.

Handling the comical assignments with over-the-top gusto are Timothy Gulan as Seabee Luther Billis (a particular kick in the "Honey Bun" number) and Jodi Kimura as the island huckster Bloody Mary. Gerry Becker strains with frustration as the naval commander, while Cathy Newman is, either by accident or design, somewhat awkward as the head nurse.

A particularly impressive aspect of the production is the swiftness with which set designer Michael Yeargan's backdrops are whisked on and off stage, even as the performers exit one scene and set up the next. Lawrence Goldberg's medium-sized orchestra provides splendid backup.

"South Pacific" has long occupied a niche in Broadway's hall of fame, and the current touring production underscores its importance. An enchanted evening indeed.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Peter Pan"

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center

When: Nightly, except Mondays, at varying curtain times (with weekend matinees) till Jan. 2.

Cost: Starts at $40

Call: (714) 556-2787

If You Go

What: "South Pacific"

Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays until Oct. 24

Cost: Start at $20

Call: (714) 556-2787

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