BWW Reviews: Star Stuff and Star Turns at Heinz Hall in PETER AND THE STARCATCHER
Watching the National Tour of Peter and the Starcatcher, I was reminded again and again of an apocryphal story about the world premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. One of the comic actors petitioned the director to allow him to add a comedic bit of his own devising, but the creative team refused. "But the audience would laugh themselves silly over it!" the actor allegedy said, with the director replying "They would also laugh themselves silly if you sat down on a pork pie, but we won't be adding that to the show either." In creating a world of infinite magic on minimal budget, playwright Rick Elice and directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers have packed the show full of magic... but much of that magic is of the pork-pie kind.
The plot of the story is clever, but seemingly intentionally convoluted. Peter and the Starcatcher tells the story of an antisocial orphan, Boy, and a flamboyant pirate, Black Stache, as their paths cross again and again among a host of other characters. These misadventures, including a shipwreck, a trunk of extremely precious cargo, and a series of comedic misunderstandings, lead- as anyone who has seen the television commercial can tell you- to their becoming Peter Pan and Captain Hook. While their story plays out, the aftermath they leave in their wake gives rise to the classic elements of Neverland iconography- mermaids, fairies, and the like.
The two dual protagonists, Molly and the Boy, are played with charm and charisma by Megan Stern and Joey deBettencourt. Stern effortlessly handles the duality of Molly's character, being equal parts self-assured British secret agent and precociously petulant child. Her distaff counterpart deBettencourt traces the Boy's journey from angst and loneliness towards the crowing, mischievous good cheer famously possessed by Peter Pan. As their two teenage companions, whose future fate as Lost Boys is punningly referenced in the first scene of the show, Carl Howell and Edward Tournier provide good comic relief, though their material is weaker than the adult characters. Finally, one cannot fail to mention Benjamin Schrader, who plays all the female roles save for Molly. His seriocomic turn as Molly's nursemaid Mrs. Bumbrake could have easily become a burlesque pantomime dame, a gay camp routine or a Monty Python pepperpot, but in his hands and under the direction of Rees and Timbers, the character becomes lovingly real, a character but never a caricature. Even Bumbrake's comedic love affair with slovenly but stout-hearted sailor Alf is never turned into an easy punch line.
Now, we come to the obvious standout. The best thing about the production, but the worst thing about the play itself. The obvious star of the evening's show: Captain Hook, nee Black Stache, as portrayed by John Sanders. Anyone who reads these reviews often will know I have a fondness for out and out theatrical clowns, and Sanders has proven himself to be one of the greats of the current stage in this performance. He throws every trick in the book into his piratical performance, leaping, contorting, pratfalling, mincing, and literally bouncing off the fourth wall. He does double-takes. He eggs the audience on. He improvises (or at least gives the illusion of doing so). He, in short, panders to every possible whim of the audience, and they eat it up. I know I did. But is a play that panders to every whim a good play, on paper if not onstage? I'm not so sure.
Don't get me wrong, Starcatcher is wildly entertaining, and I would recommend it to almost everyone. But (much like the production of Hope and Gravity reviewed on this site last week), Starcatcher seems to suffer from an identity crisis. What kind of play is it trying to be? The show's tone, comedic styling and physical performance veers wildly about from genre to genre. Molly, the British adults and narrators appearing to be in a decidedly British farce in the Terry Gilliam-Douglas Adams vein. The teenagers speak, groan and double-take like characters from a very modern American teen comedy. The pirates have a vaudevillian, performative sensibility that brings them into line with the cleverly crass comedies of Mel Brooks or Seth MacFarlane, and the natives of the island seem to have stepped out of children's theatre.
The obvious effect of such a blend is that of a show intending to be a hodgepodge, cobbled together from many elements to make an entertaining Frankenstein. Donyale Werle's set design and Paloma Young's costumes seem to suggest a similar cobbling effect, piecing the show together out of bits of junk and scrap to form a vaguely steampunk alternate nineteenth century. The low-budget aesthetic, tiny band, broad and diverse characterizations, frequent gender-bending and fast-paced, anachronistic humor reflect little else on Broadway or on the touring circuit, but placed me in mind of midwestern theatre collective Team Starkid all evening. Disney, the silent partner on the Starcatcher franchise (which includes books and an upcoming movie) obviously has a higher budget and standard of polish than an Internet-famous group of gleefully amateurish DIY theatre punks, but the aesthetic and mentality the shows share is one and the same: everything is beautiful, gender is just a state of mind, and anything goes- especially for a laugh. To say that Black Stache would fit like a glove in A Very Potter Musical, Me and My Dick or Holy Musical B@man! is not a knock on Sanders or Starcatcher, but a pleasant acknowlegement that not all theatre needs to take itself seriously, or be taken seriously. Sometimes, laughing until you can laugh no more is reason enough for a story to be told.