In the years that have passed since childhood, the magic of a bedtime story has not faded. In fact, its seemingly mystical ability to transform and delight might have grown. And an opportunity to shake the dust off this experience and feel it anew has arrived on Broadway in Peter and the Starcatcher, the enchantingly inventive show currently playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
Adapted by Rick Elice from the children’s novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson and transferring from the New York Theatre Workshop where it had a hit run last spring, this whimsical and inventive production is a refreshingly imaginative and captivating story of love, childhood and the pain of growing up.
Told in the form of a bedtime story, employing story-theater techniques and channeling the parody of English music halls, Peter and the Starcatcher introduces us to Peter Pan before he became Peter Pan – before he even had a name. He is an orphan traveling on the ship The Neverland when he meets the plucky Molly and is thrown into an adventure involving pirates, magical stardust and a very large crocodile.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should, as Peter at the Starcatcher serves as a delightful prequel to Peter Pan, introducing new characters that will inevitably evolve into more familiar ones, but that also stand alone as real people in these stories. This can be credited partly to the performances, which are nothing short of outstanding.
Adam Chanler Berat plays the titular character with just the right dose of anger and wistfulness. Withdrawn and fearful, the Boy frequently asserts his hatred of adults because of their tendency to lie to children. A few of the darker scenes highlight the abuse he endured at his orphanage, offering insight into his shy and skittish character and why he is so reluctant to become friends with his fellow orphans – a trait that thankfully dissipates as they are thrown headfirst into a remarkable adventure which forces him to find and assert his inner leader – and romantic.
The one child who does befriend Peter is Molly, played to perfection by Celia Keenan-Bolger, who gives a heartfelt, believable performance as the “insatiably curious, insufferably bright” girl . Both innocent and determined, Molly is a remarkable child who will undoubtedly develop into an even more remarkable woman and Bolger’s combination of precocious knowledge and innocently blunt way of stating it are both entertaining and heartwarming.
Also entertaining but not at all heartwarming is Christian Borle, who delivers an absolutely brilliant performance as the villainous pirate Black Stashe. Borle, who has demonstrated subtle comedic chops in other roles (Spamalot and Angels in America, to name a few) unleashes all of his comedic skill as the flamboyant, foppish and apparently dyslexic pirate. Borle seems to possess limitless energy, ceaselessly bounding about the stage, flailing his arms one moment and posing seductively on the top of a treasure chest the next (and promptly falling off of the chest the moment after that). He received the Lucile Lortel Award for his performance as Black Stashe Off-Broadway last year and one expects he will recognized by even more organizations for this production.
Berat, Bolger and Borle are joined onstage by a stellar ensemble, including Arnie Burton in the gender-bending role of the boisterous nanny Mrs. Brumbrake and Kevin Del Aguila as Black Stashe’s loyal sidekick Smee. (A scene where Smee is dressed in drag, happily playing the ukulele and contentedly singing a “siren song” to woo Peter to the beach is one of the funnier moments of the second act – and that’s saying something.) Carson Elrod and David Rossmer are both impressive as Prentiss and Ted, the first two of the lost boys. The entire company – 12 actors total – all perform impressively well together, each adopting numerous roles in each scene and switching easily from one part to another. Each actor stands out in his or her way, but they also function as a collective unit – no small feat in a cast of such talent.
Directed by Roger Bees and Alex Timbers,with set designs by Donyale Werle, Peter and the Starcatcher, is staged like a child’s playtime game and, somehow, this charm is not lost in the size and scope of a Broadway theater, something I had feared was inevitable when I learned of the show’s transfer uptown. It is just as charming and child-like as it was in its much smaller venue last year. Toy boats represent the ships, and toy cats are tossed about the stage to depict actual flying animals. The mermaid costumes that are worn in the Act Two opening number “Star Stuff” (another brilliantly performed comedic highlight) are made out of spare clothes and rags. (The appropriately old-fashioned and tattered costumes are designed by Paloma Young.) Scenes are staged by the actors holding ropes to represent doors and windows, and the simple scenes are enhanced by Jeff Croiter’s evocative lighting.
Peter and the Starcatcher does not require any further whimsicality to register as an absolutely charming show, but it earns a few more good old-fashioned laughs thanks to the musical numbers, written by Wayne Barker and featuring movement direction by Steven Hoggett. The previously mentioned “Star Stuff” is one winner, as is the Act One closing number which includes Black Stashe’s singing, “One for all and all for me!” These nicely balance out the darker undertones of the show, which tap into the pain of adolescence and first crushes as well as the abuse Peter and his friends suffered at the orphanage.
“Girls cannot afford to be sentimental,” Molly says briskly to Peter as, hiding in the jungle and in the face of death, he hints at his feelings for her. Well, this critic took exception to that rule, as this play tapped into a wealth of sentimentality about childhood, growing up, and hope for more plays as touching and imaginative as this one on Broadway.