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'Peter Pan' off to new heights

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By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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“Peter Pan,’’ said producer Charlie Burnell, is a “portal story.’’

“You fly off through the window and off to Neverland . . . this completely magical land where you can leave all your responsibilities behind,’’ Burnell said by phone from London.

But the threesixty° production of “Peter Pan’’ that pitches its 1,340-seat tent on City Hall Plaza Oct. 18-Dec. 30 will also take local families through another kind of portal: to a large-scale, high-tech entertainment that evokes both circus acrobatics and an IMAX movie, with computer-generated imagery splashed all the way around the domed ceiling of the tent - hence the name threesixty° - from a dozen projectors embedded in the stage. The tent’s framework is on the outside, with wires for the aerial work extending from an opening in the middle of the dome, Burnell said, “which gives you the ability to fly actors around the auditorium without bashing into any poles . . . and it also gives the audience completely clear sight lines.’’

Burnell said he and the company’s other founders chose the structure first, and then the CGI idea began to grow.

“The projections are surrounding the audience for the entire show,’’ Burnell said. “Some of the time it’s literally just a backdrop like any traditional set, like if you’re in the jungle you’re surrounded by gently rippling palm trees and leaves. But in the flight to Neverland it becomes much more interactive, and the children fly over 400 square miles of Edwardian London, which we rendered.’’

“It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before,’’ said Emily Yetter, 23, who grew up in Marblehead and now flies around nightly playing Tinker Bell. “We combine live theater and circus performance and new media, and it’s in the round, so it really, really creates an immersive experience.’’

It was January 2006 when Burnell, a successful theater producer, had the idea of taking “Peter Pan’’ back to London’s Kensington Gardens, where J.M. Barrie was inspired to write it, he said. As the plans got bigger, raising money got harder, but the tough economic times may have primed audiences for an escapist show, he said. It premiered in London in May 2009, played two locations there, and opened in San Francisco in 2010. It has since played Costa Mesa, Calif., as well as Atlanta and Chicago.

Yetter was just a few months out of theater school at UCLA when she auditioned for the role in fall 2010. “I sat in my car after the audition and just cried because I loved it so much. I knew that it had gone well, but I was so attached to it,’’ Yetter said by phone from Chicago, where she was performing in the show.

She started training on Nov. 2 and was onstage in Costa Mesa on Nov. 23. She now has about 250 shows under her belt, she said, but the best is yet to come: “I get to go to Boston and go and perform in my home city. . . . It really, honestly, is a dream come true.’’

Fans who only know previous stage or screen versions, as opposed to Barrie’s writings, will be surprised by this Tinker Bell, she said.

“Tinker Bell is an amazing lady,’’ Yetter said. “Disney toned down Tinker Bell more than a considerable amount. But in Barrie’s version, she’s feisty and mercurial and malicious, and she’s got some serious attitude.’’

Yetter said she’s flying for about 30 minutes of the show, held aloft on wires by an 8-pound metal harness under her costume. Like other cast members, she has a “flyer’’ named Chris Kristant in an offstage booth controlling her aerial motions with a joystick, like a video game, she said.

“The flying is one of the most exciting parts of the show, not only to watch but to perform,’’ Yetter said. “It changes from show to show, you can’t quite make it a constant, so that really keeps all the actors engaged and on our toes.’’

Those not fond of roller coasters might wonder what it’s like to do all that under a huge, moving video projection. “Nothing throws me anymore,’’ she said. “Peter and I hang upside down for I think three minutes at the end of the show. I do a million flips. I don’t feel dizzy, I don’t feel sick. You just get your body totally acclimated to it,’’ she said.

Yetter said she has several dozen family and friends coming to see her early in the show’s run here, including Keri Cahill, artistic director of Rebel Shakespeare Company in Salem: “She had such a big hand in just believing in me and helping me and coaching me for my college auditions, and being able to have her come see me in a huge professional production is really, really special.’’

“Peter Pan’’ investors have reason to be happy too. The show has taken in about $35 million, Burnell said, and “we make consistent running profits.’’

The show moves to Miami after Boston. No surprise that the producers plan to create a second “Peter Pan’’ touring company to appear in Australia and Asia beginning late next year. And Burnell said they’re preparing a new show of similar scope that could be announced during the Boston run of “Peter Pan.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

PETER PAN Presented by threesixty░

At: threesixty░ Theatre, City Hall Plaza, Oct. 18-Dec. 30. Tickets: $35-$75. 888-772-6849, www.peterpantheshow.com/boston