What you want to achieve with Peter Pan is magic. And the Denver Center Theatre Company's new production, adapted from J.M. Barrie's original, makes it. It's a little too long for the squirmy set--there are a few slow places that don't keep the little ones involved, and a half-hour trim is probably in order. But this is the darker version of the story, where the child heroes are a bit rascally, selfish and hard-hearted. Children, Barrie knew, aren't all sunshine, and somehow that edge of truth makes his the most thoughtful and, finally, the most satisfying telling of the classic tale.
Vicki Smith's set is lovely, as are the sound and light effects in this first-class production. Another thing the show has going for it is the script, by John Caird and Trevor Nunn of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Caird and Nunn's adaptation even adds another character--Barrie himself, here called the Storyteller. Because Barrie's stage directions were so vivid, and because they so aptly reflected the playwright's voice, Caird and Nunn felt they should be embodied in the script itself.
In this version, Wendy is the real hero--all that happens, happens to her. She begins as a little maiden, twelve or thirteen years old, who flies to Never Land to nurture and comfort Peter and the Lost Boys. It's just like playing house, except that the dolls are alive and kicking. But after a while, Wendy needs to be more than Peter's "mother," and though he adores her, she can never be anything else. When she decides in favor of growing up and gets ready to leave, she offers to take all the Lost Boys with her, but Peter stays behind and sulks.
Of course, Captain Hook's pirates need a mother, too, and since they're not good at sharing, they scheme to make the Lost Boys walk the plank and keep Wendy for themselves. It's up to Peter to rescue Wendy and the boys, defeat the nefarious Hook and return the heroine and her entourage to the Darling nursery, where Mrs. Darling waits faithfully. Wendy eventually grows up and has a daughter of her own, and when Peter finally arrives for a visit, the daughter flies off to Never Land for a week each year to do his "spring cleaning." (Feminist deconstructionists could have a field day with that bit of gender stereotyping.)
Meanwhile, Mr. Darling (played by the same actor as Hook) lives in the doghouse until the children return. This is the single truly absurd situation in the show, and it truly detracts from the overall tenor of the piece. Fortunately, Randy Moore gives an amusing, controlled performance as both the stern daddy and the wicked Hook, bringing a classical dash to both roles.
Director Donovan Marley has cast adults in the children's roles, and he never lets them act too childishly--a decision that pays off with nicely disciplined performances. After all, adults may have an "inner child," but kids have an "inner adult," too. Jennifer Westfeldt's tender performance as Wendy has moments of clear strength and joy. And Stephen Douglas Harrison makes a daring, earthy Peter--lovable and brave, yet forever limited.
And therein lies a large part of the magic of this show: We can mourn the loss of innocence and bright promise without wishing to be children again (or wishing to stay children). Clearly, Wendy makes the right choice. But many a young Wendy needs a companion Peter to spur her on toward womanhood.
Peter Pan, through November 3 in the Stage Theatre in the Plex, 14th and Curtis streets, 893-4100.