Peter and the Starcatcher Review: Better on Broadway
The story of “Peter and the Starcatcher” is improbable enough – a sprawling adventure involving orphans and pirates, mermaids and deadly mollusks that has landed on Broadway with inventive use of ropes and ladders instead of video projections or hydraulic lifts. But the transfer of this deliberately low-tech charmer from the main stage of the New York Theatre Workshop (with its 198 seats) to the Brooks Atkinson on Broadway (with its 1,069 seats) achieves the near-impossible: It actually has gotten better.
The play, adapted from the 2004 novel by humorist Dave Barry and mystery writer Ridley Pearson as a prequel to Peter Pan, has not lost its intimate story-theater magic, filtered through the varying sensibilities of playwright Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys,” The Addams Family”) and co-directors Roger Rees (the lead in “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”) and Alex Timbers (director of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.”) It retains its enchanting stagecraft, its energetic ensemble acting, even much of its meta cleverness.
But it has gained in appeal since my review of the Off-Broadway production in March, 2011.
The story itself is much clearer. Yes, there are still 12 actors playing multiple parts over 20 scenes that tell a convoluted 19th century yarn of ocean voyage leading to shipwreck on a tropical island and magical “starstuff,” all of which ultimately winds up (sort of) explaining the origins of Peter Pan and Tinker Bell and Captain Hook.
And yes, the word-play, anachronisms and other chaotic silliness still owe more to the Marx Brothers and Monty Python than to original Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie.
But from the very first scene, when all the performers come out together and start narrating the story, there is an obvious effort to add clarifying narration and prune some distracting shtick for the sake of the plot. The mock infomercial for “starstuff,” with testimonials by everyone from Napoleon to Genghis Khan, for example, has been cut entirely, while there is more attention to the pubescent love story between the sullen British orphan who becomes Peter Pan and Molly, the feisty daughter of a British nobleman.
The effect of this streamlining is to enhance what were already wonderful performances by a cast that has transferred largely intact. Celia Keenan-Bolger shines as the simultaneously no-nonsense and starry-eyed Molly. Adam Chanler-Berat is still, as I thought last year, the anti-Mary Martin, and I mean no disparagement to either performer; his slouched slacker take is fresh and funny. The stand-out was and remains Christian Borle, but I’ll confess to an extra lift now in seeing him perform as Black Stache, the hilariously vile villain who becomes Captain Hook. Since last he swaggered aboard the ship’s deck, twisting his tongue on stentorian puns and hammy histrionics, Borle has gotten a new gig, playing the composer Tom Levitt on the television series “Smash.”
The Starcatcher team was wise to leave the technical aspects of the play more or less alone. Donyale Werle’s sets, subtly adapted to the larger theater, still lend an air of makeshift magic. The blue-hued nautical theme in the first act, taking place on two competing ships, the Wasp and the Neverland, segues into the bright neon tropical colors of the (mythical) island of Rundoon in the second. There are still just a couple of musical numbers, composed and arranged by Wayne Barker. “Peter and the Starcatcher” is still a play, not a musical.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is also still, for my taste, too long and busy for what it is; it is still a struggle to stay engaged throughout. It is best to appreciate the play if you don’t expect it to do for Peter Pan what “Wicked” does for The Wizard of Oz – best, in other words, to see it not as a clever take on a beloved story but as a new entertainment with its own delights.
But the Broadway production brings more Peter Pan into the show, especially a scene built around a J.M. Barrie line that could be the slogan for this successful transfer: “To have faith is to have wings.”
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Peter and the Starcatcher
At The Brooks Atkinson Theater
By Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers; music by Wayne Barker; movement by Steven Hoggett; sets by Donyale Werle; costumes by Paloma Young; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by Darron L West; music direction by Marco Paguia
Cast: Christian Borle (Black Stache), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Molly), Adam Chanler-Berat (Boy), Teddy Bergman (Fighting Prawn), Arnie Burton (Mrs. Bumbrake), Matt D’Amico (Slank/Hawking Clam), Kevin Del Aguila (Smee), Carson Elrod (Prentiss), Greg Hildreth (Alf), Rick Holmes (Lord Aster), Isaiah Johnson (Captain Scott) and David Rossmer (Ted)
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
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