Review: Peter and the Starcatcher
It’s difficult to know what to make of Peter and the Starcatcher, the stage adaptation of the 2004 children’s novel which serves as a Peter Pan prequel. There is a bevy of talent on display, both onstage and behind the scenes, and the almost endlessly inventive production flies by at such a brisk pace that only the most impatient theatregoers will be bored. Yet Peter also contains some maddeningly large missteps that are all the more intolerable because of the quality that surrounds them.
The plot is a rousing adventure in which Lord Astor and his daughter Molly attempt to smuggle a chest full of secret treasure out of England at the behest of Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, their clever plan involving a decoy ship and fake treasure runs into complications when a greedy captain decides he would rather have the treasure for himself. To make matters worse, a group of pirates led by the maniacal Black Stache simultaneously attack the convoy, and on top of all THAT, Molly discovers a group of orphans about to be sold into slavery, among them an unnamed Boy with a strong dislike of grown-ups (three guesses as to who he becomes).
If all that sounds complicated, it is, and the fact that Peter and the Starcatcher remains coherent throughout is a testament to Rick Elice’s script and the sharp direction by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers. Despite appearing to be a children’s play, Peter never talks down to its audience, and includes something for people of all ages. For the kids, there is plenty of physical comedy and even the occasional fart joke, while copious amounts of wordplay and some clever innuendo will keep the adults in the audience interested as well. The story is so interesting that it’s almost a shame it must tie into the preexisting Peter Pan mythos, as the play’s resolution forgoes a satisfying finale in favor of setting up Peter’s coming adventure with Wendy.
Despite a strong cast (more on them in a bit), Rees and Timbers’ direction and the astounding design work are the real stars here. The most complicated piece of machinery used is a rolling staircase; almost every you see could be found or easily manufactured by an amateur theatre troupe. Rees and Timbers use basic items like ropes, umbrellas, and toy ships to communicate cramped holding cells, tropical rainstorms, great naval battles, flying cats and even that famed giant crocodile. Donyale Werle’s simple set design proves endlessly adaptable, and is lit to perfection by Jeff Croiter’s gorgeous lights. Paloma Young’s costumes give each character an identity while remaining basic enough to allow the actors to easily transition between characters, and her mermaid outfits alone justify her recent Tony win.
In fact, there is so much theatrical invention on display that it can become distracting. Everyone involved is so concerned with proving their creativity that the physical production often takes precedent over the story. Entire swaths are dialogue are rendered incomprehensible due to the onstage hubbub of actors moving props, miming scenery, and creating constantly changing stage pictures. All of this visual information is generally clear enough to prevent confusion, but it would have been nice to see these supremely talented folk put more faith in Elice’s sterling script and strike a better balance between the visual and auditory.
As for the actors, they fully commit to their roles and each other, forming a tight-knit ensemble willing to do anything to support their fellow performers. They allow themselves to be used as set dressing, props, and even furniture, while still creating distinct and even compelling characters. And if those characters tend towards broadly drawn outlines rather than fully realized individuals, it’s hard to fault the actors for lack of trying.
As the strong-willed but good-hearted Molly, Celia Keenan-Bolger emerges as the production’s heart and soul, anchoring the zaniness of her male co-stars with her no-nonsense yet still hilarious performance. Arnie Burton is equally charming as Molly’s nanny Mrs. Bumbrake, and Rick Holmes proves to be an excellent authority figure as Lord Astor. Teddy Bergman spends most of the first act playing supporting roles, but his second act romp as island native Fighting Prawn is so memorable that his contributions to the show prove essential. Adam Chanler-Berat does seems a little lost at sea as the Boy who becomes Peter Pan, although the script doesn’t do him any favors by keeping Peter passive and uninvolved for a good portion of the show.
And then there’s newly minted Tony-winner Christian Borle as Black Stache (re: Captain Hook). I certainly can see why he won, and wouldn’t want to advocate taking the award and accompanying recognition from an actor who has been so consistently strong in such different kinds of roles over the years. But at the performance I saw, Borle’s hamminess and scenery chewing repeatedly crossed the line from entertaining to distracting, throwing the focus of the piece and onstage energy completely out of whack. It was almost impossible to concentrate on the actual story while he was gallivanting about the stage, and yet I’m not sure any actor would have been able to resist the urge to mug given the over-the-top applause that met any bit of comic business he even attempted. At one point this was clearly a brilliant performance; unfortunately, it has now grown so broad that it hurts the show as much as it helps it.
There is much to admire about Peter and the Starcatcher, including the commitment of the actors and the unbridled imagination of the creative team. But sometimes less is more, a truism the play seems to both understand and simultaneously ignore with its shunning of high-tech stagecraft for an overabundance of low-tech alternatives. A great story gets lost among the frenzy of creativity on display, and after the platitudes given to the show by the rest of the theatrical community, I really was hoping for something better. As long as expectations are kept in check, Peter and the Starcatcher makes for an fine evening of theatre, especially for those who are young or simply young at heart.