‘Peter Pan’ review: The musical remains a magical experience for youngest theatergoers

It’s a rare occasion in the theater when you can be inspired far more by what’s happening in the audience than onstage, but such is the case with this new, updated touring production of the long-lived “Peter Pan” musical now playing at the Nederlander Theatre.

The non-Equity show tries very hard and delivers on core promises such as flying effects, but it lacks an intuitive sense of wonder and inexplicably turns its pirate characters, including Captain Hook, into goofy cuddle-buddies. You know something’s off in the storytelling when at the curtain call, the villain must remind the audience they should boo him.

But there are reasons this tale of the boy who refuses to grow up, and who takes the more practical Wendy Darling and her two brothers with him to his fantasy-world Neverland, has dug so deeply into our collective consciousness and generated multi-generational fandom. It’s about imagination itself, how children own it more than adults, how childhood should thus be treasured as something ultra-special, fleeting but fantastic. It speaks to something profound in and about kids — sometimes the kid in all of us, but in this particular case likely just the kids, and even more likely the younger ones.

So whenever I felt my eyes rolling — when for example, the production uses a tap-dance soundtrack while the cast shuffles its feet in one production number — my mood was lifted by a nearby pre-schooler just eating it up. She came to the show dressed as Tinker Bell, and if you think about it, it’s hard to humanize a magical flashing light, but her white dress made her clearly the lead fairy.

Many kids in the audience, and quite wonderfully there was a diverse array, came dressed up. I would recommend parents encourage it, as they’ll make new friends at intermission finding others who love the characters they do, or who identify with other ones. I saw two kids dressed as Tiger Lily, played in this production by singer-songwriter Raye Zaragoza as a figure of leadership and strength in the adapted book by Larissa FastHorse, the first Native American playwright to be produced on Broadway (“The Thanksgiving Play”).

Those changes address the old-school stereotype of “Indians” embedded in this piece from its J.M. Barrie origins in the very early 20th Century, and which continued through this musical version’s first Broadway run in 1954, starring Mary Martin, and the many tours that followed with Sandy Duncan and then Cathy Rigby.

FastHorse gives the tribe in Neverland an identity as refugees seeking to keep their culture alive on the island. The peace-pipe goes away, more authentic costumes come in, and we get a big, inclusive production number that ends Act I, “Friends Forever,” replacing the more-than-just-problematic “Ugg-a-Wugg.” It’s an improvement.

Another update, the use of modern projections to fill in the environment, comes off as double-edged, both visually thrilling at moments and yet also less theatrically creative.

The problems mostly don’t stem from what’s here, but from what isn’t, the qualities director Lonny Price either decided to leave out or just couldn’t find.

Sadness, the possibility of loss, and a sense of danger — all missing here. Peter Pan (talented teen Nolan Almeida) supposedly cries but not really; Wendy (recent college grad Hawa Kamara, with all the tools) supposedly misses home but not really; Tinker Bell almost dies but it feels perfunctory; and Captain Hook (an entertaining but decidedly un-menacing Cody Garcia) couldn’t, and really wouldn’t, hurt a fly, let alone a flying fairy, let alone a child.

He’s so sympathetic he doesn’t even seem to want Peter to suffer the trauma of sending him to his death in battle, so instead he kindly just jumps overboard.

By avoiding negative feelings such as fear and homesickness, this production also dissipates any possibility for derring-do, for heroism. Does Wendy decide to return home because she misses it, because she gets frustrated that Peter won’t commit to their make-believe, but also sort-of-real, partnership? We don’t know, because it could well be she just finds all these supposed “adventures” in Neverland to be kind of dull.

So this show is for the true Peter Pan lovers and those young enough to invest their own imaginations to improve the storytelling before them. In other words, it’s for those who really, really believe.

Fortunately, they exist in the audience, wide-eyed and patient and possibly sitting on laps. They’re a joyful sight.

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