Try as it might – and it tries awfully hard – "Peter and the Starcatcher" needs a lot more pixie dust to fly.
This prequel to the Peter Pan story commissioned by Disney Theatrical Productions features 12 actors in 20 scenes playing 50 characters. There are fart jokes and references to Marcel Proust and the show comments on itself endlessly. Ultimately, it tries too hard and winks too hard. Forgive the pun, but it never lands.
The Broadway version opened Sunday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with the same leads – Adam Chanler-Berat, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Christian Borle – who made it a darling downtown at the New York Theatre Workshop last year. The cast is fantastic and hardworking and collaborative, the sets are weirdly inventive, but its trip north has not done it any favors.
The show was adapted by "Jersey Boys" co-writer Rick Elice from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's best-selling 2004 children's adventure book. Telling the story of how an English orphan became Peter Pan, the play walks a fine line between self-parody and sincerity, often crossing over into a swampy mix.
Using simple props – a few lengths of rope for a ship's hull, a yellow kitchen glove becomes tropical birds, spray bottles of water mimic crashing waves – the show is often adoring of its own inventiveness, which grows tedious. Often, it just looks like children's theater on MDMA.
Act 1 is an adventure set on the high seas in which we are introduced to both a group of three orphan boys being sent into slavery aboard a pirate ship and the concept of "starstuff," magic material that falls to Earth and conveys happiness, power, increased intelligence and the ability to fly.
On the same ship is Molly (an extremely prim and proper Keenan-Bolger), who takes a liking to one of the orphans who will become Peter (a deeply emotional Chanler-Berat). Molly's mission is to make sure the starstuff is safely out of the hands of the pirates.
There's a drag mermaid revue that begins Act 2 – that and a few other pieces of nice music are written by Wayne Barker – and then we're off to another adventure set in a jungle with a giant crocodile and savages. By the end, we learn the origins of both Tinkerbell and Wendy and why Peter is so obsessed with not growing up.
The show is saved by Borle, whose performance as Black Stache – the pirate with a huge fake mustache who will later be known as Captain Hook after a very bad injury. He is over-the-top in a delicious, scenery-chomping way.
"The Stache, right under yer nose!" he bellows at one point. He is absolutely wonderful. Maybe his Hook should have his own play.
There are also some truly inspired moments – wonderfully choreographed movement by Steven Hoggett with umbrellas and big tribal masks, a line of actors with their backs to the audience creating a wall, Donyale Werle's stunning jungle set (which looks like plastic bags tossed by the tide) and that tropical bird made from just a glove. But it gets diluted with people talking in Dodo, too-easy slapstick, vomit jokes and endless references to TTFN, or ta ta for now.
Roger Rees and Alex Timbers are co-directors and this strange brew clearly shows a blend of their two hands. There's Timbers' winky-winky, oh-so-witty cultural references – Kelis' "Milkshake," Starbucks and Ayn Rand, all not terribly Victorian really – that he also offered while helming "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," and there's the endearing boyish naivety that Rees has added to parts on "Cheers" and "The Addams Family."
The Peter Pan prequel was commissioned by Disney Theatricals and ran in a workshop version in 2009 in La Jolla, Calif., before coming to New York. It's supposed to connect with kids and adults alike, but ends up shortchanging both with a frantic, indulgent mess.
Someone's been sampling a little too much of their own starstuff.
Beaming with dizzy humor and delightful stage magic, Broadway’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a big dipperful of fun.
The “Peter Pan” precursor seen downtown a year ago is based on the 2004 book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.
Set in the Victorian era, the adventure yarn unspools a stream of abused orphans, pillaging pirates, coveted booty, shipwrecks, killer crocodiles and enchanted dust from fallen stars that changes anything — and anyone — it touches.
In taking the tale from page to stage, co-directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers forgo the high-tech hydraulics of nearby “Wicked,” a long-running hit prequel.
Instead, with their talented design team, they create a bewitchingly theatrical world out of simple backdrops and props. How to stage a sea chase? Toy boats. A huge beast’s eyes and scary choppers? Red headlights and two ropes strung with white triangular flags.
A wacky mermaid bikini top? Kitchen utensils. It all works wonderfully.
For the most part, so does the adaptation by Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”). He’s loaded the script with wisecracks, one-liners and witty asides. Youngsters won’t get a number of references, such as missing treasure being “as elusive as the melody in a Philip Glass opera.” But kids will get the gag (pun intended) about passing gas and be tickled. (I was, too.)
Some jokes strain and the story still stalls a bit midway through the second half. But improvements have been made since Off-Broadway.
A better soundscape lets the mix of sea chanteys and chorales ring clearer.
And the 12 actors, who all play more than one part and most of whom are reprising roles, are sharper than ever.
The crackerjack ensemble packs three grand prizes. Adam Chanler-Berat is brooding and endearing as the legendary lost boy. Christian Borle, now of “Smash,” proves sublimely slapsticky as a prissy, malaprop-dropping pirate.
Best of the bunch: Celia Keenan-Bolger, whose high-spirited and big-hearted turn as the can-do aristocrat Molly is irresistible.
At its heart, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a valentine for the power of storytelling to transform. Tales told within it ease lost boys’ woes and literally save their skin.
Peter Pan will never grow up. But his origin story has matured nicely.
You can do a play about Peter Pan and his gang with top hats, wire-assisted flying and sets that dutifully evoke a 19th-century British home or a tropical island.
Or you can do it with jokes about Ayn Rand and Philip Glass, rubber gloves subbing for birds and an ensemble doubling as the set.
The new comic fantasy “Peter and the Starcatcher” picked option No. 2.
The show is briskly and inventively directed by Alex Timbers (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) and Roger Rees. “Use your thoughts to hoist the sails and deck the ships,” a character shouts at the start. The cast gamely obliges, while the audience puts its imagination to work.
But this wouldn’t be enough for Broadway without the tour-de-force performance by Christian Borle (“Legally Blonde,” TV’s “Smash”) as a certain pirate.
He’s not named Captain Hook, mind you, but Black Stache — and he still has both hands. That’s because “Peter and the Starcatcher,” based on a young-adult novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s famous story.
So we learn how Stache — sporting a huge Groucho Marx-like smudge under his nose — lost a paw, and how a nameless orphan gained an identity.
That young boy is played like the mopey, sensitive leader of an indie-rock band by Adam Chanler-Berat (“Next to Normal”), and the Starcatcher of the title is Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), a serious, spunky girl who’s very pleased with herself. With good reason: She’s the only character with both brains and guts, and she knows how to handle “starstuff,” a mysterious dust with the power to change people.
Adapted for the stage by Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”), the play blends an old-fashioned music-hall sensibility straight from the 1885 date line with an avalanche of jokes.
Fart and vomit gags aside, this isn’t a show for young children. It takes an adult sensibility to appreciate lines like Stache finding Peter’s new name as “evocative as a madeleine in a Proust novel,” or an orphan’s reaction to a wormy meal: “Is there a vegetarian alternative?”
And it all happens at breakneck speed.
There’s a lot of frantic business about two warring ships, switched trunks, an island inhabited by a tribe called the Mollusks — frankly, it’s hard to follow. The show feels as if it’s frantically running inside a hamster wheel, and the only breather comes at the end, when Peter and Molly exchange a sad goodbye.
They may be the heroes of the title, but the true treasure of “Peter and the Starcatcher” is its villain.
Borle chomps what little scenery there is with contagious delight. Swishing and jumping about, winking at himself and the audience, his vaudevillian pirate is a shameless masterpiece. Is it so wrong to pine for the bad guy?
They’re surfing the clouds at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, where “Peter and the Starcatcher” opened on Sunday night. And even inveterate fearers of flying are likely to find themselves following the folks onstage into altitudes where eagles get nosebleeds.
“So what’s new about that?” you may ask. These days, airborne actors on Broadway are a dime a dozen. (O.K., more like $1,500 a dozen.) Mary Poppins, the teenage witches in “Wicked,” that spider guy — they’re all hanging out in midair in the name of family entertainment.
But let’s be honest. Don’t all these folks look a little uneasy as they glide and jerk through the air via technology that no matter how up-to-date feels clunky and unreliable?
The extravagantly resourceful ensemble members of “Peter and the Starcatcher” have almost nothing in the way of modern machinery to support their sky-scraping journeys. On the contrary, there’s little here that couldn’t be found in a theater 150 years ago. What they do have is some ordinary rope, a couple of ladders, a few household appliances, two toy boats and, most important, one another. And they have you, dear theatergoer, because in this ecstatic production you’re as important a part of this process as they are.
Adapted by Rick Elice from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s 2004 children’s novel, this play tells the story of how a nameless, angst-ridden orphan became the immortal Peter Pan. As staged with unending inventiveness by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers (with movement direction by Steven Hoggett and music by Wayne Barker), the production is also an enchanted anatomy of the primal human urge to defy gravity.
What’s more, it reminds us that we always have the tools within us to achieve that objective, if we know how to locate them. Though “Peter and the Starcatcher” sometimes speaks in 21st-century locutions, its theater craft would be familiar to audiences from the early 20th century, when James M. Barrie invented the character of Peter Pan.
The Brooks Atkinson proscenium has been tricked up to suggest a Victorian music hall. (Donyale Werle is the set designer.) And much of what happens there would not have been out of place, at least spiritually, in the fairy-tale Christmas pantomimes that delighted children then.
Think of it, if you will, as Steampunk theater. (You might recall that Mr. Timbers, one of this play’s directors, was responsible for the steampunk-emo musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”) Like recent movies like “Hugo” and “The Artist,” “Peter” is in love with the simpler, and perhaps fuller, magic once wrought by its artistic ancestors.
Not that there’s anything archaic or distant about the enveloping energy that emanates from the stage. “Peter” is all about storytelling as a lively (and live) art, and the energized complicity that’s forged between the teller and the listener.
The story simultaneously being told and celebrated is as elaborate, simple, cozy and scary as the best bedtime stories are. Its elements include an ocean voyage, a shipwreck, a cargo of something called stardust, a blissful Edwardian chorus line of singing mermaids and three orphans (sold to a dastardly seaman for sinister purposes) who have never seen the light of day before. The unhappiest of these lads doesn’t even have a name to call his own.
Portrayed with glorious adolescent bereftness by Adam Chanler-Berat (“Next to Normal”), the 13-year-old Boy, as he is known, isn’t defined by much more than his distrust and resentment of grown-ups. But on board the S.S. Neverland the precocious young Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger, fabulous), the well-traveled daughter of an adventurous nobleman, spots a glimmer in Boy’s eyes that promises something extraordinary.
I suppose you could say that “Peter” is a coming-of-age tale about how Boy comes into his extraordinariness. But it’s equally about our willingness, with the help of some highly skilled guides, to accept the extraordinary, to will ourselves into believing that what the actors tell us is happening is really happening.
Because remember, there’s not that much in the way of scenery up there, especially in the first act. (What there is, for the record, is choice, thanks to Ms. Werle, Paloma Young’s costumes and Jeff Croiter’s lighting.) It’s the cast that becomes not only whatever individual characters are called for but also the settings through which they move: two different boats (and their mysterious inner compartments), an itinerant jungle and, most spectacularly, a heaving ocean that splits and devours the Neverland, and makes James Cameron’s “Titanic” (even in 3-D) look strictly two-dimensional.
None of this could be achieved if the actors didn’t have a level of synchronicity and reciprocal trust that you associate with master ballet troupes. As the cast members take turns delivering the narrative, the others instantly assume the myriad shapes and guises being described. It’s the most exhilarating example of locomotive storytelling on Broadway since the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” visited three decades ago, with a cast that included a young actor named Roger Rees.
A certain sense of selflessness is required in such ensembles. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no room for the occasional shameless star turn. For instance, that tall blond guy who’s been blending into in the background during the first several scenes, suddenly steps out with a swash and a buckle (and painted-on facial hair) to become the most villainous, effete and gracefully clumsy of pirates, Black Stache.
Christian Borle (newly famous for the television series “Smash”) is as hammy, plummy and delicious as a Christmas dinner from Charles Dickens. And how he turns three words (“oh my God”) into a show-stopping aria is something you must experience for yourself. But there’s not one cast member who doesn’t have a moment of starry silliness, transforming low humor into high comedy.
And yes, the humor is sub-adolescent, with the sort of groaning puns and flatulence jokes that schoolboys have always found irresistible. But there’s infectious art in how these cast members convey the primal joy we take in such idiocy. And throughout this production they’re sounding chords within us that we don’t even know are there: our hunger for certain kinds of fables and types of heroes and villains, and our wonder that a flying orphan invented more than a century ago continues to loom so large in our imaginations.
As for the flying that might be expected from a Peter Pan story, oh, it starts early and involves a cat that looks like something pulled out of the laundry hamper. “We ask you now to imagine a grown cat in flight,” says one ensemble member, while others add, sequentially:
“Of course the boys don’t have to imagine.”
“Because they are there.”
“And there’s the cat, and the cat is definitely flying.”
Why of course it is. And really, no such annotations are necessary. Because by then we’re there too, and, yes, we’re definitely flying.
The surprise hit Off-Broadway last spring was "Peter and the Starcatcher." At least its success was a big surprise to me.
The show, a prequel to Peter Pan's story, struck me as an admirably imaginative but incoherent and tiresome attenuated kids' show with dogged preschool jokes about flatulence, barf and poop, not to mention exhaustingly self-conscious anachronisms and annoying attempts at hipness for the grown-ups.
But lots of people deeply loved the thing, which, not incidentally, is based on a bestselling Disney novel for children -- and, also not incidentally, must seem a natural to do for the boy-adventure market what an "Oz" smash prequel called "Wicked" did for the girls.
So here we are on Broadway, with all the talented and hardworking people being talented and working hard. And I tried, but I still don't get the appeal.
For reasons perhaps known only to the producers and the musicians' union, the show -- despite piano and percussion underscoring and jolly Victorian-English songs by Wayne Barker -- is billed as a play-with-music, not a musical. Twelve actors, actually 11 men and the plucky Celia Keenan-Bolger, portray dozens of good guys and bad guys and guys-badly-playing-females in this low-tech, novelistic, story-theater adaptation by Rick Elice ("Jersey Boys").
Christian Borle (who plays the composer on NBC's "Smash") is wonderful as Black Stache, the droll and malignant pre-Captain Hook pirate with madness in his eyes and what seems like helium propelling his physical comedy.
The other highlights are tangled in the staging by co-directors Alex Timbers ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson") and Roger Rees, whose cherished portrayal of Nicholas Nickleby is recalled in the ingenious use of mere rope to make doors and stairs. Victorian toy ships are enough to set the stage for the dual voyages that take Dickensian orphans to an island ruled by a tyrant with a supposedly adorable vocabulary off a menu of an Italian restaurant.
Meanwhile, Molly (Keenan-Bolger) is working with her diplomat father to protect some very important and magical and extremely puzzling "star stuff" for Queen Victoria. Until the final few minutes, which point to the beloved futures of Peter and Wendy, the story is hard to follow, busy and boring. Every time the queen is mentioned, everyone stops to say, "God save her."
Get it? Get it? Get it? Sorry, but no.