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REVIEW: 'Peter and the Starcatcher,' a lively production at Drury Lane Theatre

September 16, 2015 at 1:31 PM

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"Peter and the Starcatcher," which is enjoying a lively production at Drury Lane Theatre, is a clever show that risks being undone by its own excess.

Written by Rick Elice, based on the novel by humorist Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, it purports to be a prequel to "Peter Pan" that explains how the boy who never grew up got his name and unique abilities. The play with music (by Wayne Barker) relies on a combination of Chicago-style storytelling and English music hall convention to create a world peopled by versions of characters familiar from the J.M. Barrie classic, such as soon-to-be Captain Hook "Black Stache" (Matt Mueller) and his sidekick Smee (Jeff Dumas), plus a whole lot more.

That "more" is part of the problem. Elice's plotting is so complicated and convoluted that keeping track of it, especially in the first act, is challenging enough make one lose interest.

At the outset, two ships set off from Portsmouth in 1885. On one, the Wasp, is Lord Aster (Rod Thomas), the emissary of Queen Victoria ("God save her" is uttered every time her name is mentioned) entrusted with a trunk full of mysterious, magical treasure that he's supposed to destroy to keep it from getting into the wrong hands. On the other, the Neverland, are the Boy (Caleb Donahoe making his Chicago debut) and two fellow orphans, Ted (Zack Colonna) and Prentiss (Aaron Kirby), who think they are going to serve an island king but in fact have been sold as snake food. Lord Aster's daughter, Molly (Emma Rosenthal) also is on this ship to keep her safe, along with her "nana," Mrs Bumbrake (John Keating), and a second trunk, this one full of sand.

Or is it? At some point, the trunks get switched. Pirates, led by Black Stache quickly take over the Wasp. Molly finds soon-to-be-Peter and his buddies imprisoned in the dark on the Neverland and leads them to freedom, or almost. After a lot of antics, confrontations between the two ships, a shipwreck, and a couple of near drownings, everyone ends up on the island of mollusks, where ruler Fighting Prawn (Andrew Mueller) has it in for the English.

The change of scene to the island is signaled at the beginning of Act II by a big number for mermaids—actually mermen—that's a musical highlight in an evening that would benefit from more songs. Led by music director Ben Johnson (conductor, keyboard, percussion), the small band on platforms flanking the stage does yeoman duty mostly punctuating the action. Thanks to sound designer Ray Nardelli, the lyrics and dialogue are clear, a boon given all the double entendres and an amusing ditty (to me, anyway) composed of the names of Italian wines and foods.

William Osetek ably directs the ensemble of 12, keeping both the plot and the witty wordplay flowing. All men except for Rosenthal's fearless, feisty Molly, the poster child for girl power who will go on to become the more domesticated Wendy's mother, they play multiple roles both large and small.
Scott Davis' deceptively simple scenic design depends on ropes and other props manipulated by the cast to achieve homespun special effects with the help of the sound and Diane Ferry Williams' lighting. For example, when Molly searches for the boys, she encounters a series of doors represented by the men lined up in a row holding poles with their backs to the audience. Each creaks as she pushes the pole aside and enters a "room" with a different tableau of shipmen.

Part of the fun, of course, is the twisted take on Barrie in what is simultaneously a tribute and a spoof. The explanation of how Black Stache loses his hand and the croc, here blown up to huge proportions, gets both it and the alarm clock typifies the inventiveness, and Mueller's over-the-top Stache mitigates the grotesqueness.

In general, Osetek goes for the humor. There are lots of potentially dark elements—not the least of them Peter being repeatedly beaten in the orphanage and his desperate desire to escape—but the notion of triumph over adversity seems to prevail, despite the poignant reality that Peter can't go home with Molly in the end.

That question of how to balance emotional truth—which peaks in the almost-love scene between Peter and Molly—with the swashbuckling and satire is at the core of effectively staging "Peter and the Starcatcher." Donohoe's convincingly natural performance as Peter, with just the right mix of boyish bravura and vulnerability, is one of many assets in Drury Lane's production, though Osetek doesn't get the overall tone quite right. He also could do more to streamline the first act and make the exposition clearer, perhaps by cutting some of the repetition.

But if you can get past the confusion, the coming-of-age show has payoffs in characters who are likely to stay with you, as well as some wit worthy of Oscar Wilde.