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REVIEW: Peter and the Starcatcher

September 07, 2015 at 3:16 PM

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Oakbrook Terrace-“Peter and the Starcatcher” opened off Broadway in 2011 to ecstatic reviews. It transferred to Broadway the next year to repeat raves. A touring production visited Chicago last year and lots of people loved it. Now the Drury Lane Theatre is staging a superbly acted and staged local version that should earn additional audience approval. So what follows is something of a minority report because after two viewings I think “Peter and the Starcatcher” is kind of boring.

The show is a prequel to the mythic James M. Barrie fantasy of Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up. The current version is actually Rick Elice’s adaptation of a 2004 children’s novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson that doesn’t really get into the Barrie story until the second act. The Peter Pan emergence certainly has its attractions, but the first act and much of the second act meander, suffering from a paper-thin narrative that often seems to be making up the action as it goes along.

What makes “Peter…” worth visiting is the brilliant stagecraft, comprised of a full dozen flawless performances, creative and invigorating directing, and imaginative costume, set, lighting, and sound designs. The production’s motor never slows as the performers go through their paces, dashing about on make believe boats on a make believe ocean and ending on a make believe island. The cast plays dozens of animate and inanimate characters, including a wall of actors with a door that opens when one of the actors is turned sideways. The action sometimes resembles a track meet but the fast-paced movements are dazzling ion their natural-looking precision. Members of the ensemble are not only supremely talented, they may have a legitimate claim to be in the best physical condition of any group of working actors in the area.

The first act follows two ships on an ocean voyage, one carrying a precious cargo of stardust. The conflict comes from a band of Gilbert and Sullivan-type pirates who man one ship, and a stiff-upper-lip crew lf Victorian Englishmen on the other ship. Among the characters are three boys on the pirate ship who are being carried across the waters to be sold, unknown to them, into slavery. One of the boys (simply called Boy) is a discontented and rebellious lad who ends up as Peter Pan himself. Merry highlights include a chorus line of male mermaids and a stuffed cat who endures and survives all manner of mishandling. Eleven of the actors are male. The single female impersonates a spunky 13-year old lass named Molly who will end up as Mrs. Darling in the Barrie story.

The physical action is continuous and often exhilarating, but “Peter…” also has its verbal felicities in the form of puns, tongue twisters, corny gags, flatulence jokes, and droll anachronisms (I think I caught fleeting references to Marcel Proust and Philip Glass). At its best the dialogue is very hip. It can also be silly and juvenile.

Subtlety and nuance are not the favored acting styles. There is a particularly hammy performance by a comic villain called Black Stache, a pirate who swishes and cavorts and rants in Matt Mueller’s bumptious performance. The character is the prototype for Captain Hook, and Mueller’s extended shtick agonizing over the loss of his character’s hand is the comic highlight of the evening.

Every character has at least one center stage moment, if only as a narrator. The star of stars in the cast is Emma Rosenthal. She may have a natural advantage as the only female among the characters but she turns Molly into the most three-dimensional character in the story. Rosenthal is diminutive physically, but she dominates by sheer force of personality and injects the most realist emotional notes into the narrative.

Caleb Donohue is good the Boy who eventually is anointed Peter Pan. Rod Thomas is fine as the “God and country” British nobleman Lord Aster and the always reliable Jeff Dumas has some fine comic moments as Black Stache’s lovable henchman Smee. John Keating is the amusing Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly’s guardian during the sea voyage and a figure straight out of “Charley’s Aunt.” The remainder of the blue chip cast consists of Zack Colonna, Rhett Guter, Aaron Kirby, Jake Klinkhammer, Andrew Mueller, Brandon Springman.

Artistic director William Osetek does a marvelous job of orchestrating the ensemble, whether they are on land, on the sea, or in the air. The carefully synchronized movements look spontaneous; an end product of what must have been some pretty intense rehearsals to get a dozen players to move about in such accord.

The designers are invaluable for this highly visual product. Scott Davis maximizes a few props and lots of ropes to designate assorted interiors and exteriors. He is abetted by the lighting plan of Diane Ferry Williams, Ray Nardelli’s sound design, and Sally Dolembo’s scruffy Victorian costumes. A three-piece electronic trio provides the occasional musical accents.

The glories of the staging can’t overcome the frailties of the harum scarum plot. The show has the look of a children’s play and there were a few kiddies in the opening night audience, but this is a vehicle for preteens and older, rather than an all-comers offering like “A Christmas Carol.” I’d like to see an 80-minute intermissionless “Peter and the Starcatcher” with all the delicious extravagant moments retained, the first act considerably shrunk, and, of course, with the sublime Drury Lane cast intact.