By Robert Loerzel
The Tony-winning Peter and the Starcatcher sets sail at Drury Lane Theatre
Drury Lane Theatre artistic director, William Osetek, has always liked seeing the tricks behind magic tricks. And he enjoys seeing theatrical shows that reveal the secrets behind an onstage illusion. “When someone’s flying onstage with a rig, it is as much a show to watch in the wings,” he says, “watching guys pulling ropes up and down”.
Peter and the Starcatcher, a Tony Awardwinning prequel to Peter Pan, is filled with moments like that. The actors bring the story to life with a minimum of props and scenery, making do with everyday objects as they conjure up a fantastic world. When Osetek saw a touring production in 2014 at Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre, he was instantly determined to get the show for Drury Lane Theatre. “I was completely blown away,” he recalls. “It really invites the imagination. It’s clever beyond words.”
Osetek (who won a 2014 Jeff Award for directing the musical Next to Normal at Drury Lane) directs the Chicago area’s first regional production of Peter and the Starcatcher this fall in Oakbrook Terrace. And he faces the tricky task of how to make the show his own. As Osetek explains, Drury Lane has licensed the script, but it isn’t allowed to copy the original Broadway hit. And even if he had the legal right to duplicate the way it was directed in New York, Osetek would be reluctant to do that. “I would never steal another director’s work. It’s just not in my nature,” he says. “Just like I wouldn’t go to a 7-Eleven and steal a candy bar. ”
And so, Osetek tried to look at play with fresh eyes, pondering the possibilities. He didn’t change the general concept. The actors still use fairly rudimentary props. Instead of attempting to create illusions that immerse the audience in an almost cinematic world, Peter and the Starcatcher presents a crew of actors who make that world with their own hands. “The first priority in my production is clarity of story,” says Osetek. “Anything that’s apt to confuse, even if it’s clever or funny, is not nearly as important to me as bringing great clarity to the storyline.”
That’s another challenging job, since this is a tale with dozens of characters and a tangled plot that thickens and thickens. Two ships, one of them with the familiar name Neverland, are sailing in 1885 for a remote kingdom, each carrying a trunk. One of those trunks contains “starstuff,” which gives magical powers to anyone who touches it. And some of the sailors are actually pirates, determined to get their hands on that precious dust. Amid all of the action there’s a nameless, homeless, friendless orphan boy — and it won’t be much of a spoiler to reveal that he eventually becomes the eternally ageless title character of J.M. Barrie’s classic 1904 play, Peter Pan. His escape from cruelty and his quest for a place in the world are at the core of the story. “This search for identity, this need to escape, this desire to create a home and a family, is absolutely fascinating to me,” shares Osetek.
Peter and the Starcatcher began as a bestselling 2004 book for young adults by novelist Ridley Pearson and humorist Dave Barry. (Pearson’s eight year-old daughter had asked him how Peter Pan learned to fly and how Captain Hook became Captain Hook). Disney Theatricals suggested the idea of making it into a play, handing the project to codirectors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers.
Timbers, a New York City native who spent a few of his high school years in north suburban Lake Forest, has won both critical acclaim and big audiences for quirky, rulebreaking shows, such as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant. Rees, who was born in Wales, became a star when he played the title role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s epic adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. That show, which opened on Broadway in 1981, was a famous example of story theater, where actors serve as narrators as they move between multiple roles. Rees took a similar approach as he developed Peter and the Starcatcher with Timbers in a workshop at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.
“We all felt like we had something exciting with this approach to the material,” Timbers recalls. “But we didn’t have a script.” That’s when they brought in Rees’ husband, Rick Elice, a playwright who’s most famous for co-writing Jersey Boys. The play resulting from their collaboration won nearly universal praise when it opened Off Broadway in 2011 and later moved to Broadway. The show was alive with all of “the excited, self-delighted giddiness you associate with really good yarn spinners,” New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote.
“One of the things that I love about the show is that it’s fun for all ages,” says Chicago actor Matt Mueller, who plays the deliciously dastardly pirate Black Stache in Drury Lane’s production. “There are jokes that hit different age groups. There’s farting and toilet humor, but then there’s a Proust joke. And it’s also just really great storytelling.” To Mueller, the key to understanding Black Stache is thinking of this dangerous rogue as an overgrown child. “He and Peter are such great foils and ultimate enemies because they’re both children — which is where the fear comes from, because you don’t know what he’s going to do. He’s unpredictable.” But Peter and the Starcatcher is about more than just jokes and jousting. Peter’s friendship with the precocious and feisty heroine Molly brings the story to a touching emotional climax.
This July, as William Osetek was preparing to stage the show, Rees, died of cancer in New York. “Roger was the most incredible man,” Timbers says. “He was not only a brilliant actor and director, but also a gifted producer, writer and painter. His sense of creativity and imagination infused every aspect of the production and inspired all of his fellow collaborators, from actor to technician.” As far how Drury Lane should put its own imprint on Peter and the Starcatcher, Timbers says, “I hope they make big, bold choices.”