Posted Online: June 24, 2009, 10:01 pm

Review: 'Peter Pan' soars at Circa '21

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

Photo: Submitted
Brittany Church plays the boy who refuses to grow up in the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse production of Peter Pan, which will play through Aug. 29.
Photo: Submitted
Captain Hook (Tom Walljasper) and Peter Pan (Brittany Church) duel in Circa '21's production of 'Peter Pan.' The Rock Island theater hosts the musical through Aug. 29.
If Brittany Church does not become a big musical-theater star, I will eat crow.

The 20-year-old student at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., certainly takes an outstanding star turn -- and justifiably crows -- in the title role of "Peter Pan" at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse.

Miss Church, whose family is from the Quad-Cities, and who now lives with her parents in Kansas, majors in musical theater at Belmont.

In an indelible, irrepressible role she's long dreamed of playing, the red-haired actress embodies Peter with such gusto, passion and boundless glee, you don't have to be a kid to get enraptured.

I planned to attend with my 9-year-old son, but that night he had a required band practice, so I was flying solo amid a happy Circa crowd of mostly families. Initially, I was a bit wary of sitting through a syrupy version of a Disney classic.

Instead, this was one of the best, most enjoyable musicals I have seen in the Quad-Cities in a long time. Energetic actors, stylish sets and a thoroughly professional production are helmed by director Jim Hesselman.

The 9-year-old's heart inside my 45-year-old body leaped with joy at the first sight of twinkling stars, and just about stayed there for the next two hours and 40 minutes. I had a strong lump in my throat and tear in my eye by the end.

Who wouldn't want to be enveloped in the warm embrace of the Disney formula – where we get to marvel at daring derring-do, followed by the obligatory comforting ending?

In Miss Church's expert hands, this Peter is fun-loving, cocky, impetuous, adventurous and fearless. He doesn't want to grow up and he takes us to the magical place, Neverland, where you never do.

With a clear, ringing voice and commanding British accent, Miss Church is very demonstrative and determined. In "Neverland," her full, beautiful pipes really fill the top notes at the song's climax.

With the darling Darling children (talented local kids Zach Finn, Lauren Van Speybroeck and Tanner Konrardy), we wonder at the thrill of "I'm Flying." A little girl behind me exclaimed, "I wish I could do that." Don't we all!

In the primal, forested Neverland, we're introduced to the tough band of Lost Boys, colorful pirates and equally playful Indians. Led by the evil, fiendishly plotting Captain Hook (Tom Walljasper), the pirates end up being lovably bumbling.

Smee (George Schulz) is the huge, funny assistant to Hook, and both look like they easily could have stepped out of a cartoon. Mr. Walljasper – a longtime Circa favorite – suitably hams it up in his showy, flamboyant role and must be having a ball. (Be sure to check out his performer bio for info on why Peter always is played by a woman.) Mr. Walljasper doubles as the family's father.

The tight harmony of "I Won't Grow Up" and the delightfully rhythmic, insistent dance of "Ugh-A-Wug" are standouts in the second act. The last act extols Hook's virtues as the world's meanest villain, before we learn how all ends up right with the world.

Many years later at the Darling home, where Wendy is a parent to her own little girl, Peter doesn't give much credit to adults, who apparently don't get the chance to fly. Ouch.

In an unforgettable performance, Miss Church soars without even leaving the ground. -- If you go -- What: "Peter Pan."

-- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.

-- When: 1:30 and 7:45 p.m. Wednesdays, 7:45 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5:45 p.m. Sundays, preceded by buffet; through Aug. 29.

-- Tickets: $46.28 for evening performances, $40.56 for Wednesday matinee. $27.04 for students 18 and younger; $2 discount for 60 and older. Call (309) 786-7733, ext. 2, or visit www.circa21.com.