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BWW Reviews: Strong Cast and Inventive Stagecraft Buoys Slow-Going STARCATCHER

Even the grandest of legends and tales may be born of modest origins. In recent years, the hitherto unknown beginnings of familiar storybook characters have been examined under the dazzling lights of the Broadway stage, and two of these award-winning shows visited Providence this season. Last December, from Oz's Emerald City, came the smash-hit musical Wicked, and now Peter and the Starcatcher arrives at PPAC directly from the shores of Peter Pan's Neverland.

The play is loosely based on the popular, similarly-named children's novel Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Though some plot elements vary between the book and its stage adaptation, both versions serve as a prequel to J. M. Barrie's much-beloved Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up.

Peter and the Starcatcher certainly provides an intriguing backstory to Pan's well-known tale. As the play opens, Peter (Joey deBettencourt) and his friends Prentiss (Carl Howell) and Ted (Edward Tournier) are ordinary boys, living an utterly miserable existence in a dreary London orphanage. Their fortunes change when the institution's abusive headmaster attempts to sell the trio into slavery. Rather than meeting a terrible fate in far-off Rundoon, young Molly Aster (Megan Stern) - the plucky and resourceful daughter of a British lord - springs the boys from the prison hold of the transport ship (aptly named The Never Land), and spirited adventures almost immediately follow their getaway.

During the show's next two hours, the youngsters encounter pirates, mermaids, island natives, and a star-born fairy. They survive shipwreck and kidnapping, escape from the jaws of an overlarge crocodile, and use their wits to defend a trunk full of "starstuff," golden dust from fallen stars that, even in the smallest of amounts, will grant the innermost wishes and desires of the heart.

It would seem that Starcatcher has all the right ingredients to be a standout production: a solid literary foundation and engaging storyline, a top-notch cast of actors, and some truly inventive props and staging. Unfortunately, these elements never quite come together as cohesively as they should, and the overall presentation suffers from the script's lack of consistent focus.

The play starts out with some fairly dark themes - child abuse, slavery, and kidnapping at the forefront - while also touching on questions of gender inequality and western imperialism. But rather than using these issues to fully develop the characters and advance the narrative in more depth, Starcatcher soon abandons them altogether and instead descends into a continuous bid for laughs.

All three of the main antagonistic characters - pirate captains Slank (Jimonn Cole) and Black Stache (John Sanders) and Chief Fighting Prawn (Lee Zarrett) of the island Mollusk clan - are so comically over-the-top, they offer very little in the way of menace. The actors capably manage pun after zinger, but the nonstop barrage of one-liners too often brings the narrative's momentum to a dead stop. Only the sadistic orphanage headmaster clearly presents any real danger to the children, and his stage time is limited to brief flashbacks in act one.

Starcatcher also does itself a disservice by having each and every one of its characters rattle off present-day pop-culture references from curtain to curtain. While offhand lines about Cadillacs and Michael Jackson dance moves do garner plenty of laughter, they also regularly detract from the tension and pacing of the show's overall storytelling. Additionally, the wonderful sense of time and place established by the ornately gilded "stage-within-a-stage" set framing the actors is quickly overshadowed by the characters' overbearing campiness and self-referential asides to the audience.

That said, Starcatcher's standout ensemble cast makes the very most of the material in each and every scene. As Peter, deBettencourt has some of the deepest and truly meaningful moments on stage. Peter is initially addressed only as "Boy" - he was in the orphanage for so long, he has no memory of his own name - and deBettencourt gives a layered performance that reflects Peter's sorrow, keenly-felt hurts and bitterness, and lasting distrust of adults. One of the more memorable scenes in the entire production occurs when an overawed and exultant Peter sees sunlight for the first time; here and elsewhere, deBettencourt's portrayal of Peter's most deep-rooted and aching desire - simply to be a boy - comes across in a sincere and heart-touching manner.

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