Peter and the Starcatcher
Written by Rick Elise
Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers
Featuring Adam Chanler-Berat, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Christian Borle, Carson Elrod
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street
February 18, 2011 (1st preview) — April 17, 2011 (extension)
production web site: http://www.nytw.org/peter_info.asp
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 13, 2011
Peter and the Starcatcher captures time in a bottle and Tinkerbell with a light trick. We meet the characters that will populate the children’s literature juggernaut Peter Pan (story, play, films, animated adventures) before the familiar story. Wicked tells gives us Oz before Dorothy drops in, this gives us Neverland before Wendy drops in, with a Dorothy / Wendy-like adventurous leading girl who reminds us of Wendy for a reason.
In the days of Queen Victoria‘s reign (“God save her”, as the characters would intone) a band of orphan lads including Peter (Adam Chanler-Berat), Ted (David Rossmer) and Prentiss (Carson Elrod) are sent off to sea by their school master (think the workhouse operators in Oliver Twist). A conflation of ship action dominates the Act One involving one ship helmed by pirates led by Black Stache (Christian Borle, who frequently calls to mind the stunningly fey original musical Hook Cyril Ritchard), and one helmed by a British sea captain held by those pirates and visited by Lord Aster (Karl Kenzler) and his daughter Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger). Orphan Peter becomes Peter Pan, the boy who won’t grow up and can fly (and this play tells us how he gains that ability, and it’s not by wishing it were so); Black Stache becomes Captain Hook. And we are left to dream.
The unraveling of the story forging connections to J.M. Barrie‘s original yarn is just part of the fun of this charming piece. Ensemble physical action, minimum of set pieces and maximum of ingenuity (including rope held at right angles to represent a picture frame or a television screen, paper cut out monster teeth, spray bottle sea spray). All the of pyrotechnics are perfectly visible and simply enchanting and kept moving and airborne by directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers.
Musical moments are rare in the more somber first act and more frequent in the second. Act Two opens with a cast of “mermaids” in grass skirts and bras made of found objects, evoking memories of South Pacific’s “Honey Bun” with those visuals and lyrics describing the evolution of fish into mermaids via the magic in the water (see the show to find out what I’m talking about) including “soon you’re growing hair / soon it’s long and curly / soon you’re acting girlie.”
The set design by Donyale Werle (Timbers’ set designer for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) is flexible and powerful — it’s all a bedtime story in this version of storytelling, so shipboard adventures Act One are skirted by rope rigging and a ladder or two and piled sea chests and squirt bottles providing sea spray over the deck. Act Two’s island-based sea adventures are highlighted by blue light illuminated plastic bags and outsized plastic fish. And a fake pineapple. And it all works.
It is my hope that the temptation is resisted to blow up this small and intentionally rough hewn set piece to a larger Broadway house. On a larger scale it may suffer the same challenges as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (created and directed by Mr. Timbers and designed by Donyale Werle) did when it moved from an intimate to a larger venue. Peter and the Starcatcher works in this way, told in this manner, because the scale is small and focus absolute. The three-year-olds in front of me and the 70-year-olds behind me, though laughing at different moments, similarly enjoyed this adventure. Like Rocky and Bullwinkle‘s Fractured Fairy Tales, this play is scripted to play to the adults in the audience while shticking to the kids — and is not above a good fart joke.
© Martha Wade Steketee (March 14, 2011)