‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’ With Neil Patrick Harris is LMAO Genius
The Mischief production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, directed by Adam Meggido, is a a whopper of a farce with some of the finest schtick that can be conceived of in the minds of men and beasts. Threading non-stop chortles and belly laughs, the production runs at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through the 9th of July. This is one to see if you enjoy slapstick, farce, irony, Monty Pythonesque humor which is sardonic, and dead-pan, and simply gorgeous in the hands of the British. Also, the farce is an absolute send up of Murphy’s Law, “If anything can go wrong it will.” The Mischief productions have made “a thing” of this law in theater, assuring us how amazing and wonderful it is, when professional casts and creative teams collaborate to present a show without a glitch, hitch or switch. In Peter Pan Goes Wrong, nothing goes right, and for that we are utterly grateful for such an evening of joy.
Delighting a world-wide audience (forty countries) the hilarious Mischief Peter Pan uses as its source material, the iconic play Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. This clever farce of foolishness and mayhem is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. The writers also take on key roles of the members of the Cornley Youth Theatre, the amateur theatrical company whose faux pas production has made it to the Ethel Barrymore. In effect, the Mischief production is a play within a play and the cast portrays two roles, the Cornley members and the Peter Pan characters they portray.
Thus, we experience the amateurs’ attempt to elevate their status to professional theater-makers with their Peter Pan which becomes Peter Pan Gone Wrong. This ingenious conceit keeps the jokes and pratfalls coming. Indeed, for future versions and tours of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, one can see how such a premise promises an ever evolving fountain of hilarity.
As Cornley members, Lewis’ Robert, Sayer’s Dennis and Shields’ Chris take on the roles of Nana the Dog, John Darling and George Darling. They are counted among the pirates (Starkey, Captain Hook, Mr. Smee), and Cornley Youth Theatre’s competing creatives. These actors are the backbone of the production and are simply superb as they interact with each other and the audience. Shield’s Captain Hook, who the Cornely cast members encourage the audience to “boo,” goes “whole hog.” He attempts to shut up the booing and commands the audience loudly and humorously to, “Shut up.” For a moment, I worried that the audience would be too “over-the-top” and get out of hand. However, Shields was incredible, conducting the audience like a maestro, evoking their boos, then ending them. His technique, practiced comfort and obvious enjoyment at playing interactively with the audience in great good fun was tremendous.
The same may be said of he entire cast’s versatility and expertise in slipping between the roles of the Cornley Theatre members and Barrie’s Peter Pan characters with energetic zaniness. The ensemble works in concert seamlessly to make each moment a wondrous laugh riot. These include Matthew Cavendish who portrays Cornely’s Max, the show’s money man, child Michael Darling, and the athletic crocodile. Nancy Zamit, Cornely’s Annie plays Mrs. Darling, Lisa the maid, Curly and Tinkerbell. The fairy outfit is perfection thanks to Robert Surace’s costume design. Zamit switches roles and costumes from Mrs. Darling to Lisa the maid with deadpan insouciance, as she cues the audience in to the ironic jokes with a glance.
Rounding out the fine ensemble are Charlie Russell who plays Cornely’s Sandra, who is Wendy Darling. In the Cornely Theatre world backstory she is having an affair with Greg Tannahill’s Jonathan. As the “high flyer” Peter Pan, he has grown “close” to Wendy and in front of the audience, they shamelessly steal kisses and hugs. Ellie Morris’ ungainly Lucy Grove is Robert’s daughter, who portrays Tootles in the Neverland segment. At the beginning, she runs around with father Robert and Cornely’s Assistant Stage Manager, Gill (Bianca Horn), as they try to correct the lighting issue.
However, most notable for his hysterical performance is Neil Patrick Harris, who portrays Cornely’s Francis, the Narrator of the amateur production, and Cecco, an older pirate who has been with Captain Hook (Shields) on his many adventures. Harris astounds with his presence, making each moment of stage time real with organic humor. He’s athletic, authentic and hysterical, presenting impeccable timing. His amateurishness is believable given the professionalism and talent it takes to pull it off. He’s just smashing and throughout conveys he enjoys the sheer fun of this farce.
Given the production’s foibles and blunders, we note that it would have been easier to put on an unadorned, straight Peter Pan. Indeed it is ferociously hard to make precision technical errors that could harm if their “going wrong goes wrong.” One can’t help but appreciate the ensemble and technical crews’ incredible pacing and dead-on timing of the fiascos that populate the comedy and keep audience rolling in the aisles. For example, early on when Mrs. Darling opens a door, after that exact moment a light falls from the electrics. A few seconds off dead reckoning, Mrs. Darling alias Annie (Nancy Zamit) would be flattened. Part of the enjoyment of the production is the surprise that none of the endangered actors injure themselves. However, there is no bloodshed in the service of the incredible displays of scenic design “gone wrong.”
The fun begins when audience members are handed the Playbill. Smack in the center of the glossy program, where one would expect to see theater advertisements, one finds Cornley Youth Theatre’s black and white program of their Peter Pan. Written by Robert Graves (Henry Lewis) the four-page program is filled with tidbits and stories of the Youth Theatre’s events and various and sundry. The program’s ironic, humorous tone massages the audience to expect what the Cornley Youth Theatre isn’t capable of. For example the “flying operator” responsible for Peter Pan’s “flying” is “not known.” In other words, Peter Pan will “fly” on a wing and a prayer, with no tech crew to guide him gracefully across the stage and to Neverland. Greg Tannahill, who plays Cornley member Jonathan, who portrays Peter Pan, is the most ungraceful, wonky, upside-down Peter Pan ever to hit Broadway and/or Off Broadway. Tannahill is brilliant and frightening in his flight plans.
Additionally, the program notes that directors Chris Bean (Henry Shields) and Robert Grove (Henry Lewis) are fighting for preeminence. Their competitiveness spills over into the Cornley production of Peter Pan, where they take jabs at one another as they portray Barrie’s characters. Robert Grove (Lewis) who pegs himself as the “Head” of Cornley Youth Theatre, has written most of the program which includes an “In Memoriam” to Nadia, their ten-foot Nile crocodile that passed away. How she passed is LOL ironic. The Cornley program lists upcoming production descriptions and events which include Wind in the Willows, Wind in the Widows, Wind in the Pillows, and a “Peter Pan Backstage Tour,” which has been given a safety assessment rating, “Hazardous to All,” and which strongly advises tourists not to participate.
From start to finish, Cornely Youth Theatre’s amateurs, not only don’t get it right, they do so in the most galacticaly nutty and unexpectedly surprising ways as they give Barrie’s script a try. Lewis’ Robert Grove appears onstage as the audience is being seated. There is a problem with the electrical current and outlets. So Grove and Horn’s Gill arrange for a long, orange extension chord to be floated over the heads of audience members to plug it into an outlet at the back of the Barrymore. These hi jinks occur and the play hasn’t even begun yet? Correct. And when the Cornely players finally manage to get the lighting situation straightened out and the set revolves to its proper Darling household (the revolving platform with three sets is exceptional in a later stunt) Peter Pan Goes Wrong takes off, and bumpily flies down and up and around, and lands with unforgettably riotous brilliance.
The creative team were called out for their bows and rightly so, for without their expertise, there is no Peter Pan Goes Wrong hysteria. Kudos goes to Simon Scullion (scenic design), Roberto Surace (costume design), Matthew Haskins (lighting design), Ella Wahlstrom (sound design) Richard Baker & Rob Falconer (original music), Tommy Kurzman (wig & make up design), Hudson Theatrical Associates (technical supervision.
Enough praise for this superior farce that will split your sides with its sensational humor and gags. For tickets to this premiere, go to their box office on 243 West 47th St. or go to their website at https://pangoeswrongbway.com/. You’ll be thrilled that you did.