Charming and inventive
You need look no further than Wicked to see that prequels can mean big business for musical theater. There’s something rather satisfying in seeing how iconic fairy tale characters came to be, whether it’s a frightened lion cub or a crowing orphan who never grows up. With Peter and the Starcatcher, we get Peter Pan’s backstory as well the fanciful adventure that birthed Tinkerbell, Captain Hook and Peter’s crew of ageless prepubescent islanders.
In Drury Lane Theatre’s staging of Starcatcher, director William Osetek oversees a mostly charming adventure that’s essentially a 90-minute children’s show bloated to two hours and somewhat inaccurately billed as story equally suited for all ages. I’d argue that the sweet spot in the Starcatcher demographic is six to 12-year-olds. Penned by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the music-infused play is delightful for the first two thirds of the show. But once the killer number that opens act two is finished, the show’s relentless whimsy veers from clever to cloying. Moreover, the third-wall breaking self-awareness that’s amusing in the first act starts to feel like artifice in the second act.
Peter and the Starcatcher lets you know up front that it’s not going to obey the traditional laws of drama. A scruffy crew of youngish men take the stage, and inform the audience they’re going to put on a play. A cascade of ropes and rigging falls from the fly space, and a pair of massive trunks roll into view, as the ensemble shapes itself into a pair of ship’s prows. We’re bound for the wild seas aboard the sleek, superfast Wasp and the creaky old Neverland. In one of those all-important trunks: A priceless stash of “star stuff”, a magic compound of potentially deadly and infinite power. Lord Aster (Rod Thomas) is charged with delivering the dangerous stuff to Queen Victoria. In the decoy second trunk: sand.
Lord Aster sets sail on the Wasp, after putting his daughter Molly (Emma Rosenthal) and her nanny Mrs. Bumbrake (John Keating) aboard the Neverland. The first plot hole opens up as Lord Aster explains why he must send his beloved daughter off on the Neverland while he sails with the Wasp. The real reason for the split is that were the two to stay together, the plot would suffer. That bit of sloppy plotting isn’t a deal breaker though, and soon enough, a pirate crew led by the dread pirate Black Stache (Matt Mueller) is plotting to steal the starstuff and throw anyone who’d foil him overboard.
The Neverland is also carrying a trio of orphans who have been sold into slavery: Prentiss (Aaron Kirby), Ted (Zack Colonna) and Boy (Caleb Donohoe), a lad who has been an orphan for so long, nobody remembers his actual name. It falls to the boys and plucky young Molly to outwit the pirates and keep the starstuff safe. Tempests, desert islands, mermaids, man-eating crocodiles and a portentous kitchen timer all come into play as the denizens of the Wasp and the Neverland race across the oceans.
Much of the show’s entertainment value comes from the low-tech inventiveness the actors use to tell the story. You could argue that the show is a response to the era of spectacles and shows wherein special effects upstage the flesh-and-blood actors. There are no crashing chandeliers or flying helicopters in Starcatcher, just good-old fashioned storytelling.
Osetek’s committed cast does a fine job in etching the broad comic characters that propel the show. As Black Stache, Matt Mueller displays killer comic timing and a villainous panache that’s quite impressive. The title character may be the Boy who becomes Peter Pan, but in this production belongs to Black Stache. Or so it does when Mrs. Bumbrake isn’t on stage. As the prim, strong-minded and infinitely proper nanny, John Keating serves up Victorian realness With the fierceness of a dragon and the impeccable manners of a dowager countess at high tea. Emma Rosenthal gives Molly a precocious pluckiness and Caleb Donohoe captures the pre-adolescent mix of exasperating and endearing that defines Peter.
While this isn’t a musical per se, Peter and the Starcatcher has lots of music, most memorably mermaids-on-vaudeville specialty act that is straight up one of the single most hilarious numbers I have ever seen in some 40+ years of theater going. If choreographer Rhett Guter ever decides to chuck the whole theater thing, he’s totally got a career in synchronized swimming waiting for him
Still, the charms of Starcatcher wear thin as the second act winds on, with the show devolving from quirky to precious and becoming more childish than childlike. IF you have access to children, by all means, consider a voyage aboard the Neverland. IF not, be advised that this is at heart a children’s show and if you’re a grownup you may be ready to bail after those mermaids float out of sight.