An outstanding cast creates magic in Peter and the Starcatcher, making its Broadway transfer to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Originally produced by the New York Theatre Workshop at their downtown theatre—a vital presence on the 4th Street Arts Block that also includes La Mama E.T.C., Horse Trade Theater Group and others—directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers have wisely preserved most of the cast and creative team that made the show an off-Broadway hit.
Rick Elice’s script, adapted from the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is an imagined prequel to the Peter Pan story. In it, we learn just how the Pan we know came to rule Neverland, how Captain Hook lost his hand, how the crocodile got its tick-tock, and in an inspired bit of staging, how Tinkerbell came to flit across our collective consciousness. The play dances around themes of self-discovery, bravery, and most importantly, the moment when we grow up, but the play also asks the audience to leave the analyzing for another time and to just enjoy being a part of the fun. While appropriate for children, this play is mostly for adults who want to enjoy a bit of stress-free entertainment. Filled with double entendres, self-referential winks to the audience, and jokes about paying for parking and a babysitter, there is no doubt that this show is primarily for the grown-ups. This is Children’s Theatre for Adults.
The adventure begins on two separate ships, each carrying an identical trunk. One of the trunks is filled with the mysterious and powerful “Star Stuff,” and has attracted the attention of a band of pirates. One of the ships is also carrying a group of orphans who have been sold into slavery, as well as young Molly Aster, the precocious daughter of Lord Aster and Starcatcher in Training. Lord Aster has charged young Molly with protecting the Star Stuff, and she will not let anything, especially the strange new feelings stirring for a nameless orphan Boy, get in the way of her mission.
The first half of the show focuses on the sea journey. The cast of 12 adults all play multiple roles, filling out the crew of both ships as well as narrating a large amount of exposition. They create the two ships before our eyes by manipulating a rope, a ladder and other found objects, layering in a wonderful illusion of children at play. In turn, each actor steps forward to fill in their part of the story. This spontaneity is one of the delights of the production, and the commitment to this illusion by the actors and creative team is main reason the play works.
Almost no color appears on stage during the first act, expressing the bleakness of the world the orphans live in. One of the most striking moments of the first act is the bold staging and harsh lighting, designed by Jeff Croiter, when the nameless Boy remembers the brutal orphanage. The costumes, designed by Paloma Young, reinforce the oppression by staying almost entirely in shades of grey. It isn’t until the second act, when we arrive on a strange island, that the world becomes vivid. Jeff Croiter’s lighting becomes lush and the colors saturated. The set, designed by Donyale Werle, goes from black to stylized greens, blues and yellows in abstract shapes and softer textures. The costumes take a turn for the zany, beginning with an opening number in which technicolor mermaids do a kick-line in bikini tops cobbled together from kitchen utensils. It’s a clear signal that we’ve left the world where the orphans are ruthlessly abused by adults and have landed somewhere that has new rules waiting to be made up as we go along.
The magic just wouldn’t fly, though, without the excellent performances by a deeply committed cast led by Christian Borle as the dastardly pirate, Black Stache. Nowhere is the sense of play more evident than in his interpretation of the villain who, it is fairly obvious from early on, will become Captain Hook. Wonderfully, and somewhat counter-intuitively, Borle’s Black Stache quickly establishes himself as the story’s care-taker. Like the bossy child in a game of make-believe, it is Black Stache who keeps the story moving in the right direction when it comes close to veering off track. There is never any real threat behind his bluster. In fact, there are a number of times a true cut-throat would have simply dispatched his captives, but then the story would be over. Instead, Black Stache does what he needs to do to continue the game, letting us know just how much he loves and even needs to play the villain. Borle captures this hubris in endlessly inventive variations, bringing joy to every moment and attacking the role with an energy that leaves nothing in reserve.
Celia Keenan-Bolger has created a new classic in the role of Molly Aster. Her excellent performance is deeply rooted in a sense of exploration of the world around her and of the young girl’s rapidly changing inner life. She is the moral compass of the play, and Celia Keenan-Bolger finds the vulnerability in Molly’s attempts at sure-footedness, which allows her to become so endearing to the audience and to the orphan boys. As the unnamed Boy, Adam Chanler-Berat lets the character we soon recognize as Peter Pan emerge slowly throughout the course of the play, building an excellent performance with subtlety. The supporting cast displays a marvelous virtuosity, especially Arnie Burton as Mrs. Bumbrake and Greg Hildreth as Alf, who form a sweet pair of lovers, and David Rossmer and Carson Elrod as Ted and Prentiss, orphan boys whose forthright objectives embody the simplicity of youth.
The ensemble is remarkably strong, however it did bother me that the cast was made up of almost entirely white males, especially when there is no reason it couldn’t have been more diverse. Without taking anything away from the wonderful performance given by Arnie Burton, I question the choice to cast a male in what is clearly a female role at a time when women are so under-represented in the theatre community. The understudy for Mrs. Bumbrake is a woman, proving there is no intrinsic artistic foundation for the drag. It also nagged at me that a lot of the humor relied on fey posturing that, though delivered with impeccable timing and a good natured spirit, seemed as outdated to me as cracking jokes about Charles Nelson Reilly’s ascot on a game show from 1975. I was in the minority, and most people were rolling in the aisles.
A fair amount of prior knowledge of the classic Peter Pan story is assumed by the creative team, though I doubt there will be many people who won’t get the copious, clever references to the source material or that, if somehow there is someone in the audience who doesn’t already know about Peter and his Lost Boys, their enjoyment would be lessened in any way. The Starcatcher plotline holds together on its own, and is enhanced by its connection to a larger story without being dependent on it. Transferring from a smaller stage to a larger one can be difficult, and for the most part Peter and the Starcatcher is very successful. There were, however, a few key moments that couldn’t be seen from my seat in the side section, so try to get a center or balcony seat. The play is not overly intellectual or challenging, though I doubt it is supposed to be. It is a good natured piece of theatre, made an enjoyable experience by a high level of talent, creative vision and craft.