The boy who never grew up. Pirates, fairies, mermaids. Second star to the right and straight on to morning. All familiar to anyone who has cherished the play and novels about Peter Pan written more than one hundred years ago by J.M. Barrie and the various theatrical and film adaptations that have followed. Yet, what fun it was for Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson to reimagine the tale of how that ever youthful callow lad became Peter Pan in their 2004 novel Peter and the Starcatchers. Now an adaptation of that novel has been lovingly crafted by playwright Rick Elice, directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and the Tony award winning designers of Peter and The Starcatcher now on stage in New York at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
Unlike other fantasies that have graced the Broadway stage, Peter and the Starcatcher relies on the appearance of a low budget staging. The setting uses colorful backdrops and the use of found props to create intimate scenes or clever representations of native wildlife. Add the seemingly well-worn Victorian-style costumes and the musical score by Wayne Barker and this scant company of twelve actors create such magic on the stage that the most cynical adult will by the end believe in the power of star stuff and the legend of the founding of Neverland.
In J.M. Barrie's 1902 novel, The Little White Bird, later republished in 1906 as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Peter Pan is described as a newborn who escaped his nursery window. In later adaptations he ran away because he heard his parents discussing his future adult life. In Peter and the Starcatcher he is an abandoned orphan who is sold along with two other boys to Captain Slank of the ship Neverland to be delivered to the country of Rundoon. Captain Slank is delivering one of two identical trunks belonging to Lord Aster. Aster is traveling on the other ship, the Wasp under Captain Scott. Slank marks one of the trunks and switches it so that he can possess its valuable cargo of star stuff. Lord Astor sends his daughter Molly and her nurse Mrs. Bumbrake on the slower Neverland ship while he travels with the faster Wasp so that he can destroy the star stuff before it falls into evil hands.
The trunks are switched and the Neverland is taken over by pirates led by the great and terrible Black Stache. The clever and adventurous Molly joins forces with Peter and the orphans, a storm shipwrecks the Neverland and the star stuff begins to change the island they find themselves on in strange and mysterious ways. Before the tale ends we will see the origins of many familiar characters and places in J.M. Barrie's fantasy world.
Peter and the Starcatcher deservedly earned its Tony wins for its amazing design elements. The actors are a joy to watch as they spin the tale keeping the audience, which frequently includes small children, engaged throughout its brisk running time. While Tony winner Christian Borle has left the show, Matthew Saldivar has capably taken up the mantle of the scenery chewing (in a good way) Black Stache. A complete blowhard who does maintain an undercurrent of menace, Mr. Saldivar clearly is having as good a time performing the role as the audience is delighting in his performance.
Arnie Burton is delightful as Molly's nurse, Mrs. Bumbrake giving her just the right amount of saucy bravado mixed with Victorian sensibility. Teddy Bergman fiercely defends his island home from contamination by the English as Fighting Prawn the chief of the island. Rick Holmes has the right stiff upper lip as Lord Aster and Kevin Del Aguila the perfect slimy sidekick as the pirate Smee. Adam Chanler-Berat as the Boy who becomes our hero creates pathos for the abused orphan and the gradual transformation from despairing lad to the future thorn in Captain Hook's side is delightful to watch as he is guided on his journey by his fateful encounter with Lord Aster's spunky daughter, Molly.
For Molly is the true heart of this play. In the hands of Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger, Molly Astor is full of spit and vinegar. She yearns for adventure hoping beyond hope to earn her father's approval, yet rebelling from the strictures of Victorian girlhood. Ms. Keenan-Bolger's Molly is on the cusp of blossoming womanhood yet has the gentle awkwardness of girls and boys of her age. Comparisons to Barrie's Wendy are obvious, yet Molly is more than the mother that Peter and the other orphans lack. She is their feisty equal.
If there is a flaw with the play it is minor. There are several contemporary pop culture jokes. While this does mean that they can be updated as needed, unlike a film adaptation where such additions would become quickly stale, they do detract from the universality of the story.
Peter and The Starcatcher is being performed at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.peterandthestarcatcher.com or www.ticketmaster.com.