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.
Stern brings lots of pep and personality to apprentice starcatcher Molly Aster. Molly's unfailing self-confidence and competitive, take-charge attitude could potentially descend into egoism in the wrong hands, but Stern is spot-on in her delivery. Stern crafts Molly into an endearing and likable leader, and she gives the character a real dose of heart even in the face of her unwavering determination and unshakable aplomb.
Though Black Stache's persona is entirely steeped in hyperbole, Sanders steals every scene and makes the most outlandish lines (including challenging tongue twisters and pun-laced quips) feel perfectly in-character for the poetical pirate captain. This gifted comic actor very literally stops the show during Stache's second-act mishap with the swiftly-closing lid of a sea chest; though the scene runs somewhat long, Sanders' facial expressions and wide variety of very amusing improvisations are unquestioningly memorable. In addition, Sanders gives The Stache's quest to find genuine heroic sacrifice - in essence, the ideal hero to his own ideal villain - the balance of humor and dignity it needs to be one of the stronger points in the narrative.
Given that Hyperion Books, a subsidiary of Disney Press, published Peter and the Starcatcher and the novel's several sequels, it is not surprising to discover Disney Theatrical Productions' involvement with Starcatcher's stage production. What is surprising is the uniqueness of the play's presentation. Though the show depicts high seas adventures, dangerous jungle islands, and "the boy who could fly," the props and sets are notably low tech. Any "special effects" and most all of the scenery changes are accomplished with the use of simple, everyday objects.
Starcatcher really shines here, as a common length of rope imaginatively becomes anything from the ship's passageways to crashing ocean waves. Simple silk drapes stand in for island landings and magical lagoons, while yellow kitchen gloves become birds and small green light bulbs mark the arrival of Tinkerbell. Captain Hook's infamous nemesis - the tick-tocking crocodile - comes to life with the use of white flags, salad bowls, and flashlights. This original and truly resourceful staging keeps the audience engaged, even when the narrative itself becomes bogged down in absurdity.
Peter and the Starcatcher banks on the allure of Peter Pan's legacy to attract a multi-generational audience, but in an apparent bid for a wink and a nod at the adults in the audience, it also contains a fair amount of innuendo and crude humor. Though many of the in-jokes are likely to go over younger children's heads, Starcatcher veered into strong "PG-13" territory fairly often for a production chosen as the face of "Macy's Family Night" at PPAC. Indeed, Starcatcher's own tagline - "A Grownup's Prequel to Peter Pan" - is a far more fitting for the show's content.
Peter and the Starcatcher plays the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, March 2, 2014. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ppacri.org, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $32-$69 and discounted rates are available for groups of 20 or more.