I have a huge conundrum when it comes to “Peter and the Starcatcher,” the play by Rick Elice (based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) that serves as a “prequel” to “Peter Pan.” And the many facets of that conundrum were driven home Thursday as an immensely gifted and charming cast at Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre poured its last ounce of energy, breath and heart into bringing the show to life.
The play (with all too few songs by Wayne Barker), is an unabashed homage to theater itself, and to the very essence of make believe that is at the core of the “Peter Pan” story. With its nods to vaudeville, story theater (a la “Nicholas Nickleby”), camp, old-fashioned hamming and Wildean wordplay, it explores all forms of the art, and suggests how exceptional physical daring, along with some planks and ropes (and quite a bit more), can create a world that needs only an audience’s engagement to be completed. Its engaging subtext goes further, suggesting that everyone wants to be a performer, “a star,” in some way, shape or form.
So, you might well ask, what is the problem here, especially since director William Osetek’s artful Drury Lane production is in every way superior to the national touring edition of the Broadway show seen here a couple of seasons back? It is this: Elice (so economical as co-author on “Jersey Boys”) seems to have fallen in love with his own words and (clever) wordplay even more than with his notion of theater. So a show that might have taken flight at 90 minutes just sails on, and on, and on for two and a half hours.
Plot-heavy in the extreme, “Starcatcher” is dragged down by its endless twists and turns that just can’t sustain interest despite its two ships full of flamboyant pirates, a slew of other eccentric characters and much talk of a rather elusive “starcatcher” substance that somehow explains why Peter can’t go home with Molly (who will grow up to be Wendy’s mother).
Only in the second act, when the much-abused orphan, Peter (the graceful, winningly natural Caleb Donahoe, in an impressive Chicago debut), and Molly Aster (a most winning Emma Rosenthal in a bristlingly smart and comic turn as the aristocratic daughter of Queen Victoria’s most trusted captain), finally have a touching “almost” love scene, does it all seem worth it. Although the show’s second act opening – a mermaid (“merman” actually) “ballet” choreographed by Rhett Guter – could easily become a guilty pleasure.
Each of the dozen performers here is outstanding, with Matt Mueller pulling out all the stops as Black Stache, the very gay pirate on a quest for stardom; Zack Colonna and Aaron Kirby most natural as Peter’s orphan pals; Jeff Dumas ideal as Smee, a sort of shipboard Sancho Panza; Rod Thomas as the unflappable Lord Aster; John Keating as Molly’s very offbeat nanny; Andrew Mueller as Fighting Prawn and other; Jake Klinkhammer as Alf, and Brandon Springman as Captain Scott.
Scott Davis’ deceptively simple set (lit by Diana Ferry Williams) perches music director Ben Johnson and his fine musicians (Rich Trelease and Ethan Deppe) in full view above the stage, with the story below morphing from ship deck to island world. And Sally Dolembo’s costumes, full of humorous touches, are scenery in themselves. The actors, aided by Ray Nardelli’s superb sound design, make every word in this verbally stuffed show audible. Less would have been so much more.