Live review: Peter and the Starcatcher breathes irreverent new life into a story told many times | Arts

Live review: Peter and the Starcatcher breathes irreverent new life into a story told many times


Peter and the Starcatcher - PHOTO BY SCOTT SUCHMAN
  • photo by Scott Suchman
  • Peter and the Starcatcher
Peter and the Starcatcher
Broadway Series South at Memorial Auditorium
Tuesday, March 10, 2015

There’s been a truly ridiculous number of Peter Pan revivals and reboots recently, from December’s uneven TV musical with Christopher Walken as Captain Hook to the children’s cartoon Jake and the Never Land Pirates. More are on the way: See the upcoming film Pan with Hugh Jackman and the movie-based stage musical Finding NeverlandAnd that’s not counting the recurrence of the boy-who-never-grew-up theme in countless other movies, pieces of popular culture and even foodstuffs.

It’s not too surprising that there are so many variations on the original story—Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie, even wrote a few different versions of the character, starting in his book The Little White Bird. Beneath the theme of rejecting adulthood and the simple joys of a colorful adventure with flying and pirates, there’s all manner of subtext, even tragedy and horror, to be examined and interpreted again and again.

For proof, look no further than Peter and the Starcatcher, an adaptation of a Pan prequel that succeeds by both embracing and subverting the original story. Based on a series of YA novels co-written by humor columnist Dave Barry, it sets up the events of the Barrie tale by diving head-first into Pan’s frequent stage interpretations while rigorously parodying their narrative and theatrical conventions.

Using two minimalist sets, a dozen actors and clever lighting, props and sound effects, Starcatcher stages shipwrecks, chases, monstrous creatures and near-death experiences in a way that favors imagination and irreverence over large-scale theatrics. No one sets flight via harness, but whether it’s model ships being carted around, ropes rippling to convey waves or a couple of lit orbs and a roll of banner flags creating the enormous crocodile, there’s a certain homemade feel that’s more Our Town—and more effective—than the massive ship and painted Neverland from NBC’s Pan production.

The narrative is based on an elaborate voyage to a remote island in 1885. The goal is to dispose of a mysterious, magical treasure on the order of Queen Victoria. Among the passengers are Molly Aster (Aisling Halpin), the intellectual, determined daughter of the scientist in charge (Andy Ingalls), and three orphans, the most significant of whom is known only as “Boy” (Bryan Welnicki). There's also the pirate “Black Stache” (Joe Beuerlein, giving the standout performance, with manic verve and Gomez Addams-style prosthetic facial hair), a flamboyant captain, prone to puns, with a desire for an arch-nemesis. Soon, familiar tropes begin to fall into place.

The story, with its deliberately overcomplicated explanations of the various Neverland elements, plays as both a straight adventure and a ridiculous farce in the hands of adapter Rick Elice (Jersey Boys). All the actors play numerous background roles, narrate, comment on each other’s actions and, at one point, do a mermaid-themed musical number in drag, with mustard containers serving as one’s bikini top.

In one sequence, Molly fleeing from room to room on the ship is depicted by the rest of the company standing with their backs to her, each representing a door, with a creaking sound effect as the “door” opens. Then the cast jumps into completely different roles, representing scenarios in the different rooms she enters. It all climaxes with a very long sequence where Black Stache utters every possible variation and intonation of the phrase “Oh my God!”, one of those scenes that goes from funny to tedious to funny again.

There’s also a fair amount of pun-filled wordplay, much of which is impossible to explain out of context (I particularly liked it when Stache complained about “splitting rabbits." Think about it ...) The goofy, self-aware quality should be painful, but somehow it works, capturing the makeshift, seemingly improvised style of a bedtime story. Even when the narrative threatens to collapse on itself, as in the exposition-dump during the final moments, there's still an involving quality to the story that makes the emotions shine through the ridiculous wordplay.  

The story might be too involved for some audience members. Multiple attendees sitting near me opening night left complaining that they couldn’t figure out what was going on. And there were some sound problems that night with microphone feedback and voices projected a bit too loudly for those in the orchestra seats. Yet there’s a rollicking, even poignant quality to this version that reminds us why so many people (authors and audiences alike) have found this story so enduring. The world might have one too many versions of Peter Pan already, but the unique Peter and the Starcatcher definitely isn't that one.

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