There was a time, not long ago, when audiences and critics alike bemoaned the lack of theater options in the twelfth month, when two regional evergreens loomed large: Theatre in the Park's A Christmas Carol and Raleigh Little Theatre's Cinderella. But gradually, other companies added a host of different voices—and blessed dissonance—to the winter mix. This year, there are about as many productions on Triangle stages devoted to the holidays as those that aren't.
The first of them, PlayMakers Rep's Peter and the Starcatcher, opened last weekend. A prequel to J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, it's based on the first in the series of best-selling children's books by Pulitzer-winning humorist Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. The series is published by Hyperion Books, a subsidiary of Disney, so the parent company's involvement in a stage adaptation was inevitable. The resulting musical took an unconventional professional trajectory, with off-Broadway productions in 2011 and 2013 sandwiching a 10-month run on Broadway.
Playwright Rick Elice's all-ages adaptation mixes the sweet and snarky in a ripping old-school yarn. It propels 13-year-old Molly Aster (Arielle Yoder), her father, the prim Lord Aster (Ray Dooley) and three orphans who become the original Lost Boys out of the proper world of Victorian England through high treachery with pirates on the open seas. This blood-and-thunder passage lands the principals on an island with inhabitants both magical and mundane.
As might have been predicted for a Disney enterprise, the heavies aren't that heavy. Mitchell Jarvis' less-than-dread pirate, Black Stache, is a pneumatically inflated fop whose menace never truly convinces. Still, he regularly scores with a quiver of bad-boy puns, anachronistic social references and theater in-jokes.
After referring to a problem as "the Cadillac Escalade of dilemmas," he complains that one character is "as elusive as the melody in a Philip Glass opera." As in Chuck Jones' golden age of Bugs Bunny cartoons, these references sail over the heads of 9-year-olds and hit their parents dead-on. A prizefight sequence from out of nowhere could have been lifted whole from a Looney Tunes classic.
But the heart of the enterprise belongs with Molly and the Lost Boys. Molly becomes their first leader, simultaneously challenging and protecting them, refuting the hollow, gender-based leadership claim of the contentious Prentiss (Daniel Bailin).
Under Brendon Fox's direction, we see the post-traumatic stress in actor Evan Johnson's Peter after flashbacks detail his harrowing experiences in a London orphanage. Other ethical failings of the British Empire (and empires that followed) are probed when the island's inhabitants are found to be a direct result of British intervention and negligence.
As is frequently the case, children internalize and baldly state the facts. After Molly and the Lost Boys persuade the islanders not to kill them, Prentiss exults, "You need us! We can do all the things you guys don't wanna do anymore. We're foreigners! That's what we're for!"
Actor John Allore is a memorable, unsavory Slank, and Jeffrey Blair Cornell gratifies as his assistant, Alf. Brian Owen is a suitable foil as Smee, the captain's second in command. Benjamin Curns amuses in the drag role of Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly's nanny. Increasingly fantastical costumes, minimal set design and atmospheric lighting ably place us within several changing worlds. But Fox's mostly imaginative staging doesn't extend to the pirate-hating crocodile, which remains offstage, and Wayne Barker's score for percussion and piano rarely matches the larger-than-life aesthetics on display.
Still, Peter entertains by filling in the blanks that transport the orphans—and us—to Neverland.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rated "arrr!"