'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' review — never-ending laughs abound in this Neverland
Read our four-star review of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the latest Broadway show from the creators of The Play That Goes Wrong, now playing through July 23.
J.M. Barrie’s beloved children’s story Peter Pan offers straight-shooting directions to the fictional island of Neverland: Fly toward the “second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning. ” In Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the latest Broadway production from Mischief Theatre, the journey to Neverland is anything but smooth. The comedy follows the Cornley University Drama Society’s botched attempt to stage the classic adventure tale, and there are flying accidents, forgotten lines, falling set pieces, and missing props, among other disasters.
Mischief first bowed on Broadway in 2017 with The Play That Goes Wrong, a play-within-a-play following the Cornley troupe’s calamitous staging of a murder mystery. Similarly, their Peter Pan is rife with slapstick humor and running gags. But Peter Pan Goes Wrong benefits from the familiar framing of a classic story: There is anticipatory laughter in waiting to see just how the amateur company will hoist actors in the air and fashion a crocodile. (The answers: poorly, and with an actor in a childish onesie on a rolling board.)
The merriment and mishaps begin before the curtain rises as Peter Pan’s excitedly nervous director Chris Bean (Henry Shields) welcomes audience members. He trips and tumbles down the aisle of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, kickstarting the rolling laughter. The setup continues with an onstage pre-show speech, in which Bean and assistant director Robert Grove (Henry Lewis) recall the company’s past failures, including a production titled Jack and the Bean. (There was no budget for a full beanstalk.)
But there’s hope that Peter Pan — which received a sizable donation from a company member’s father — will be a feather in the troupe’s cap. The directors warn the audience that the actor playing John Darling (Jonathan Sayer) does not know a single line and that the Lost Boy Tootles (Ellie Morris) has extreme stage fright. These are the least of their worries, though.
The play’s narrator, Francis Beaumont (Neil Patrick Harris, guest-starring through April 30), enters the stage on a comically slow-rolling throne with a burst of confetti to begin. Act 1 is a tight sequence of hilarity. One of the best laughs is prompted by John Darling sporting headphones so the stage crew can feed lines from backstage. Before each deadpan line reading, the headset emits a radio crackle. (It’s one of the running gags that actually gets funnier throughout, especially in Act 2, when the transmitter begins to pick up television commercials and Uber notifications.)
Anne Twilloil (Nancy Zamit) undergoes split-second quick changes to transform from Mary Darling in a purple evening gown to the Darling family’s maid in a dowdy uniform. It is physical comedy at its best. Stacker also shines, literally, as the cavorting Tinker Bell in a light-up tutu (costumes are by Roberto Surace).
The play continues beyond the Darling’s home to showcase an impressive set —thanks, no doubt, to the company’s inflated production budget. Scenic designer Simon Scullion’s wondrous spinning set, complete with a towering Big Ben and the Neverland Jungle, is unworthy of the amateurs. It also gets completely ruined by the careless actors and crew members — and several technical difficulties, including an electrical fire.
In Act 2, offstage showmances and creative conflicts creep on stage, worsening the characters' performances in Peter Pan. Some of the production’s repeat gags also lose steam by the time Peter, Wendy, John, and Michael greet the Lost Boys in Neverland. The energy wanes a bit, but the audience participation ramps up with ad-libbed scenes and audience callouts.
Scenes with Captain Hook (also Shields) elicited lots of boos and jeers, especially from kids in attendance. Hook claps back, asking the crowd if Josh Groban has to endure audible criticism as Sweeney Todd. In another scene, Harris, playing Cecco the pirate, entertains with a participatory magic trick to divert attention from yet another onstage injury. Children (and children at heart) willing to ride the giggle train will enjoy this production the most.
Under the swift direction of Adam Meggido, the rollicking cast members deliver lines perfectly out of order and miss stage blocking to comic effect. In many ways, it is more challenging to waywardly fly on a harness and haphazardly roller skate upstage than to do it correctly and safely.
Perhaps the show’s biggest stars, though, are the actual stage managers (led by production stage manager Adam John Hunter) who employ hundreds of ill-timed sound cues (sound design by Ella Wahlström) and operate a decentered spotlight (lighting design by Matthew Haskins).
This critic gives it four stars and advises you to go straight on to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Photo credit: Henry Shields, Ellie Morris, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Neil Patrick Harris, and Matthew Cavendish in Peter Pan Goes Wrong. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
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