Kansas City Ballet’s “Peter Pan”

Kansas City Ballet Dancer Paul Zusi in Devon Carney’s “Peter Pan.” Photography by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.

The story of Peter Pan, as first imagined by J.M. Barrie and premiered on stage in 1904, is on one hand a fantasy story, on another a coming-of-age story (how often those two entwine) and on another, should you have three hands, a treatise on bravery. 

Peter is brave in forging a new life for himself and fighting pirates and living his truth; Wendy is brave in protecting her family and facing the fact she must grow up; Tiger Lily is brave in honor and trust and steadfastness; Tinkerbell is brave in overcoming her jealousy and insecurity to do what is right. Captain Hook has the false bravery of someone who thinks power will shield them from consequences. 

We live in an era that demands a strange bravery from our children and it is these stories, hopefully, that will help guide them when they are asked to be brave. 

Devon Carney’s version of “Peter Pan” was a sweet, crowd-pleasing production by the Kansas City Ballet. The audience at opening night included the company’s dedicated fans and solid representation of children—including my own, who came with me to the show on Friday evening. Seeing their reaction and hearing their laughter enhanced the performance, which they thoroughly enjoyed, described as “extroydenary” and “fanomanol.” 

This family-friendly fare clocked in right at two hours, with one intermission. 

In some ways, the Peter Pan story mimics the arc of the steadfast Nutcracker ballet, with a family scene, adventures in a faraway land, and a return to the comforts and loved ones of home, the characters nevertheless altered in unseen ways. 

Carney set this adaptation of the Peter Pan story to an eclectic, percussion-heavy score by Carmon DeLeone, who for over 50 years was the music director of the Cincinnati Ballet. The score was composed in 1994 for Cincinnati, but has been used throughout the country by many companies and performed internationally. Ramona Pansegrau conducted members of the Kansas City Symphony. 

Kansas City Ballet used sets and costumes from the Cincinnati Ballet production, with scenic design by Jay Depenbrock and Holly Highfill and costume design by Claudia Lynch. 

This Kansas City version premiered in 2018, part of the company’s 60th anniversary season. This production follows many of the standards of traditional ballet, though the story calls for a fair amount of humor, fighting, and flying. 

Kansas City Ballet Dancers Taryn Pachciarz and Paul Zusi fly in Devon Carney’s “Peter Pan.”
Photography by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.

Paul Zusi performed the title role on opening night, the strutting, posing, flashy Peter Pan, with daredevil charm. The more demure and gentle Wendy was danced by Taryn Pachciarz, with mischievous brothers John and Michael, danced by Chase Hanson and Lorenza Guezuraga, respectively. 

In the opening sequence, it was the appearance of Nana, the children’s dog/nanny (performed by KCBII member Ian Anderson-Conlon) that got the most laughs (though the timing with orchestral sound effects was off), along with Peter’s tantrum-invoking attempts to reattach his shadow. 

Lighting design by Trad A Burns and flying effects by Flying by Foy enhanced the magic of the production. 

Carney included a large amount of ensemble and solo work, giving many of his best dancers plenty of opportunity to impress. Tinkerbell, at first represented as a quivering, fleeting green star ricocheting around the stage, was danced by an elegant Amanda DeVenuta, surrounded by fairies, pixies, and sprites (from the Kansas City Ballet School); Amaya Rodriguez was a strong and lithe Tiger Lily, with her warrior princesses. Carney used a traditional children’s clapping game in his choreography for the scruffy and joyful Lost Kids, with Wendy and Peter’s duet ending in a pinky promise. 

The pirates sections were particularly strong, creatively, from the moment a cannonball blasts into the scene, to their bumbling entrance with the nefarious (but in this rendition, primarily ridiculous) Captain Hook, danced by Andrew Vecseri. The pirates were impressively athletic, if inept in action. With them, too, Peter had one of his funnier scenes, as he tricks the pirates to free Tiger Lily from capture. 

Kansas City Ballet Dancers Andrew Vecseri and Paul Zusi in Devon Carney’s “Peter Pan.”
Photography by Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios.

Another well received performance came from the crocodile, performed by KCBII member Troy Monger-Levin, who shimmied across the stage through a variety of viral dance moves and guffaws from the crowd, and danced with great gusto with the terrified Hook. 

Some moments seemed flat or unnecessary, with gags going on a bit too long, like Nana’s extended “getting sick” moment or the drunken pirates. Texturally, it made no sense for the backdrop in the second scene to show an aerial view of Never Never Land, unless all the action was taking place in the clouds. 

But there’s a reason the Peter Pan story remains a cultural touch point, recreated in various forms. It shows us that friendship matters, that staying true to yourself comes with a cost, and that the bad guys can be defeated. 

Reviewed Friday, February 16, 2023. “Peter Pan,” with choreography by Devon Carney, was presented by Kansas City Ballet. Performances continue February 22-25. For more information visit kcballet.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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