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‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’ at the Ahmanson in just the right way

From left: Nancy Zamit and Greg Tannahill in “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

“Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” from the mischievous creators of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” uses the same formula of having everything that can go wrong in staging a play, go even more wonky than you can imagine. We still get J.M. Barrie’s original story about Peter Pan, but with more mirth along the way than should be allowed in live theatre.

In the play—conceived by Mischief members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, and precisely directed by Adam Meggido—the Cornley Youth Theatre is staging Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” but without a proper operator to handle the immortal boy’s flying. And that’s not nearly all.

Flimsy set design, electrical failures, improperly trained actors and romantic rivalries among the cast quickly consume the production, which—like the actors who fall from the air with a thud, get crushed by props or become pyrotechnically electrocuted—barely makes it through intact.

Cast of “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Continuing at the Ahmanson Theatre through Sept. 10, the production is given local gravitas by multi-Emmy Award-winning actor Bradley Whitford (The West Wing, The Handmaids Tale) serving as Narrator through Aug. 27 (with Daniel Dae Kim continuing the role thereafter).

Whitford has fun making his narratorial entrances and exits on a moveable wooden chair, gamely throwing glitter on himself each time and bearing with all the ways a moving wooden chair can get stuck, not work, get reversed or otherwise cause him to stumble, fall or humiliatingly recover from a related indignity.

Whitford’s multiple golden Emmys sometimes share the chair with him, over which he self-deprecatingly preens while giving well-deserved shout-outs to the writers currently on strike and the actors who support them. Maybe because it’s a home crowd, those mentions draw even more cheers, hoots and hollers from the already vocal audience.

Cast of “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

The audience becomes integral to the production, which has no fourth wall, or barely any walls at all by the end. We boo Chris Bean’s (Shields) Captain Hook (“Shut up!” he snaps in return), happily applaud Annie Twilloil’s (Nancy Zamit) lightening quick costume changes between Mary Darling and housekeeper Lisa, and sympathetically root for newcomer Max Bennett (Matthew Cavendish) as both young Michael Darling and The Crocodile, to which he Irresistibly beams with pride.

Meanwhile, stage manager Trevor Watson (Chris Leask) is (sort of) trying to keep everything together, getting the crew to resize the set’s doggie door so Nana the Dog (Robert Grove, co-director, played by Lewis) doesn’t get stuck; propping up a Neverland tree after it crushes and disables Tootles (Grove’s reluctant young niece Lucy Grove, in her stage-frightened debut, winningly portrayed by Ellie Morris); and jumpstarting the electricity when it short-circuits and at one point appears to kill the twinkling Tinkerbell (Zamit).

Cast of “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

In these and myriad other ways, the production messes with theatre conventions (what happens if the revolving stage doesn’t stop?) in ways that force laughter, even if just for the effort of a silly gag.

We spend an inordinate amount of time, for instance, gripped by Captain Hook holding a bottle of poison in one hand while trying to unscrew the top with his hook. “Where is Peter Pan?” he asks menacingly and is infuriated when audience members respond, “Right behind you!” which he of course knows, but the question is supposed to be rhetorical in the context of the stage and suspending disbelief.

In his physical comedy, Bean (Shields) channels the estimable John Cleese as Hook and especially as John Darling, father of the Darling brood. Grove (Lewis) similarly uses his hefty physicality well for comic effect as both Nana the Dog, Peter’s upstaging shadow and an incomprehensibly growly pirate.

Cast of “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Tyde (Sayer) as young John Darling wears headphones to get fed his lines and yells them because he can’t hear himself, including loudly delivering an entire heartbreaking backstage breakup conversation not meant to be dialogue. And Twilloil (Zamit, a cofounder of Mischief)—is delightfully fluid and comically expressive in all her roles, especially the silent but animated Tinkerbell.

In their relatively straighter roles, Sandra Wilkinson (Charlie Russell) as Wendy Darling and Jonathan Harris (Greg Tannahill) are winsome. We learn of Sandra and Jonathan’s romance through live backstage mics capturing gossip, and also how the innocent Max secretly loves Sandra when an audition tape is randomly broadcast during the show.

In these ways, we come to know the Cornley Youth Theatre cast members as they power on despite the production catastrophes. We cringingly empathize with them and also cheer them as their trials and tribulations become a play within the play. You really can’t go “wrong” when such physical comedy has a heart, and when the cast and crew give both their all.

“Peter Pan Goes Wrong” continues at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, through Sept. 10, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $40 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (213) 628-2772 or visiting Run time is 2 hours and 5 minutes, including intermission.


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