In December 1904, at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, the world had its first taste of what is now an iconic tale. It was there, in a play by Scottish author J.M. Barrie, that audiences were introduced to a place called Neverland and to its unusual inhabitants: Captain Hook, Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys, and of course Peter Pan, “the boy who wouldn’t grow up.”
Barrie’s play became the basis for his 1911 novel, Peter and Wendy, and later spawned a string of film and musical adaptations. In 2004, a century after Peter Pan‘s debut, it inspired a kids’ lit prequel by humorist Dave Barry (no relation to J.M.) and Ridley Pearson. This book, in turn, was adapted by playwright Rick Elice into Peter and the Starcatcher, and—voila!—Peter Pan is back on stage in a brand-new, imaginative adventure, entirely suited to the 21st century.
The current TheatreWorks production of Peter and the Starcatcher reminds us why Peter and his friends belong on the stage: The story of Neverland is a story of magic, and it comes to life most effectively when powered by the magic of theater. Reading about a fantastical adventure is one thing; watching the fantastical brought to life before your eyes by a handful of actors using only low-tech special effects is something far more marvelous.
Directed by TheatreWorks founder Robert Kelley, this production has no shortage of wonders. In just over two hours, we are witness to a tempest, a pitched naval battle, a shipwreck, more than one near-drowning, a life-altering fall and a fateful maiming, all on the narrow stage of the Lucie Stern Theatre. There’s a homicidal cat, a levitating child, a school of burlesque mermaids, and a rapidly expanding crocodile.
It’s a frenetic—sometimes frantic—evening of theater, and it could have easily descended into chaos if it weren’t for Kelley’s sharp stage direction. But every bit of stage wizardry has been rehearsed to perfection, and even the simplest of effects—Peter’s voice echoing from the back of the theater, for instance, or a splash of glitter as he dives into an imaginary pool—gets an appreciative murmur from the audience.
(Perhaps the highest-tech effect in the show is its portrayal of a certain pixie. TheatreWorks’ solution to “the Tinkerbell problem” is worlds better than the usual skittery laser pointer, yet even this bit of magic is accomplished with materials you could acquire on the cheap at RadioShack and relies primarily on the actors’ skills to sell the illusion.)
Peter and the Starcatcher also delivers laughs by the boatload, which should surprise no one familiar with Dave Barry’s literary output. The jokes are sometimes absurd, sometimes anachronistic—sometimes fart-related—but they are always big and generally well-delivered.
In the midst of all this excitement, wonder and mirth, we learn the origins of every major Neverland character, watching as a nameless orphan (played by Tim Homsley) becomes Peter Pan and a two-fisted, swaggering, malapropist pirate named Black Stache (a brilliant Patrick Kelly Jones) becomes his hook-handed nemesis.
We also meet some new characters, including Molly Aster (Adrienne Walters), a plucky 13-year-old girl who is heir to a great secret, and her nanny, the ever alliterative Mrs. Bumbrake (Ron Campbell… ’nuff said).
Other standouts in this exceptionally strong cast include the sidekicks: Suzanne Grodner, who balances the show’s gender-bending quotient as Black Stache’s faithful Smee, and Cyril Jamal Cooper and Jeremy Kahn as Peter’s orphan pals Ted and Prentiss.
The scenic design by Joe Ragey packs ships, grottos, and stormy seas onto a shabby music-hall stage, and extends the nautical theme out into the house. The other theatrical arts—lights, sound, costumes, props, choreography—are equally well represented, adding to the flavor and magic of the piece.
The only element that doesn’t quite work is the music. Though not a musical, Peter and the Starcatcher does contain a handful of songs, mostly chorus numbers meant to bolster the excitement in key scenes. Sadly, these feel like afterthoughts (with the exception of the mermaids’ deliciously flouncy act two opener), and the sound of an electronic keyboard issuing from the pit is a tad too 1986 for the show’s timeless/Victorian vibe.
Younger kids may have trouble following the opening scene’s rapid-fire exposition, and they may fidget through the prolonged, overly somber denouement, but the bulk of the show is so funny, so engaging, and so very magical that it truly is a perfect holiday entertainment for the whole family.
Peter and the Starcatcher
Through Jan 3