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Theater Review: ‘Peter Pan’ Takes Flight in White River Junction

If you ever had the chance to go to Never Land, the tropical land in Peter Pan that’s teeming with lost boys, alligators, Indians and dumb pirates, where seemingly anyone can fly, why would you ever want to leave?

In every version of J.M. Barrie’s story about a sprightly manchild who refuses to grow up, Never Land is a place of excitement and intrigue, filled with the characters that Wendy, John and Michael Darling may have encountered in books, but never expected to meet. That’s no different in Northern Stage’s production of the musical Peter Pan, directed and choreographed by Connor Gallagher and continuing at the Briggs Opera House through Jan. 6. In fact, this staging of Pan doesn’t really seem to come to life until Peter (Eric Deiboldt), the ragamuffin ringleader of the Lost Boys, stumbles into the nursery in search of his shadow. He not only retrieves it, but leaves with the three Darling children, whom he’s taught to fly by “thinking lovely thoughts,” for a journey to Never Land.

Sure, the nursery is nice enough. It’s where the Darling children are looked after by their dog Nana, and tucked in each night with a story and a song by their mother (Jacqueline Grabois). Even Peter can’t resist being lured there to eavesdrop on Mrs. Darling’s stories. It’s nice, but not terribly exciting. No wonder Wendy & Co. jump — make that, fly — at the chance to go to Never Land, the perfect place for Peter who “want(s) always to be a little boy and to have fun,” and who in his torn green outfit looks like he walked off the set of a Green Day video.

To the title role, Deiboldt brings a delicious, defiant zest, and effectively conveys what is inherently magical about this piece of theater. His scenes with Wendy (Katie Emerson, who has a lovely, clear soprano voice), whom he’s brought to Never Land to serve as a mother to the Lost Boys, are particularly heartfelt. Through his “I Won’t Grow Up,” eyes, we experience Never Land and see why he thinks there is no place like it, even though going back there means an inevitable encounter with Captain Hook (William Thomas Evans), who lost his hand in a fight with Peter and seeks revenge.

In general, the Never Land scenes are the strongest and most exciting to watch in this Peter Pan, particularly the Lost Boys’ rendition of I Won’t Grow Up, and the Ugg a Wugg number where the Lost Boys and Indians celebrate their newfound unity, an impressive showcase of Gallagher’s choreography gifts. That kind of excitement makes the Darling children’s eventual longing for their nursery somewhat curious. Inherently, we know why they would want to return: It’s their home, the place they share with the people and the dog they love. But the scene in the nursery lags in comparison with the Darling children’s time in Never Land, and there’s not a great sense of the strong feelings they attach to their home, aside from the lovely number Distant Melody, where the children allude to the song their mother sang to them “once upon a time and long ago.”

Of course Never Land wouldn’t be nearly as fascinating a place without Hook, one of the dumbest crooks in all of literature, whom Evans portrays as an ego-driven diva. It’s a delicious performance that never failed to win over Friday night’s audience.

The same qualities that make the Briggs Opera House a great place to see a David Mamet drama make it a tough place to produce an effects-heavy musical like Peter Pan. True stage magic is harder to come by in a small studio theater, and it leaves little room to conceal the stagehands who are largely responsible for making that magic (flying, in the case of Peter Pan) happen.

This probably made little difference to the children in Friday night’s audience, who gasped and cheered at the end of the first act, when Peter and the Darling children fly through the stars to Never Land. The adults, who might be a little more prone to skepticism, appeared equally entertained, particularly when Evans was hamming it up as Hook. Some of them dabbed their eyes during Peter Pan’s penultimate scene. It’s a bittersweet reminder that once you leave Never Land, you can never really return.

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.