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Review: Rick Elise's Wildly Inventive PETER AND THE STARCATCHER at the Stage West Playhouse

Review: Rick Elise's Wildly Inventive PETER AND THE STARCATCHER at the Stage West Playhouse

Peter and the Starcatcher is a theatrical thrill ride!

One of childhood's greatest joys is creating art in the backyard with friends. Sometimes it's a stage show with garbage can lids as knight shields; sometimes, as showcased in Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans, it's making 8mm movies with your peers. You see this creative camaraderie when watching old "Our Gang" comedy shorts, when Spanky and his urchin gang charged a penny admission to see their latest imaginative endeavors in their backyard playhouse, which usually spotlighted Alfalfa singing off-key. This is where imagination really thrives, and I hope modern-day post-Covid kids haven't lost this sacred art--storytelling using any means necessary.

PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, Rick Elise's prequel to Peter Pan which closes today at the Stage West Playhouse, beautifully captures this spirit of childhood storytelling. Watching its bursts of cleverness, audiences get the feeling of an anything-goes production based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. It's no accident that Act 1's set may resemble the interiors of a tree fort and Act 2 of a backyard where children's unquenchable curiosity and creativity can soar.

PETER AND THE STARCATCHER catches more than titular stars; it captures the feeling of home and, especially, time. Home is where you make it, as Peter poignantly discovers. But more important is time. We grow up, we have to; it's the sad fact of life, where most coming-of-age stories blossom. But Peter Pan is the boy who refuses to grow up. Time stands still for him. It's no accident that clocks and time pieces play an important part (remember the croc's name in Peter Pan: Tick Tock). PETER AND THE STARCATCHER makes us re-examine the themes of the original Peter Pan. It's a chaotic mess, vastly entertaining, but in the end brings the poignancy of home and time. Watching it, we feel younger, like our own childhood creative processes have been on parade. When I drove home all I thought about was time, that everyone sans Peter Pan has a grinning death-croc named Tick Tock haunting them.

The show's plot centers around two ships--The Wasp and The Neverland--and two distinct trunks that get mixed up. Add to that a myriad of pirates, mermaids, Mollusk Island natives with sort of foodese inspired names, and magical starstuff, and you get the non-stop adventures of the troupe of storytellers. What follows is much well-staged mayhem. It can seem overwhelmingly complex, but it really isn't; still, Act 1 especially seemed to daze the audience. There are so many in-joked that come at you a million miles a minute, many of which I appreciated very much. (There's a Philip Glass reference that made two people in the audience laugh, and I was one of them.)

At the end of Act 1, the audience, many over seventy years old in the matinee that I attended, seemed like geriatric Lost Boys. They viewed the show as if they were viewing a foreign film without any subtitles. At the end of Act 1, they sat in staid silence, like they had just viewed the Zapruder film of Kennedy's assassination. There was obvious dynamic stage work going on, incredible feats of imagination, and the clapping at intermission turned out to be tepid at best. This surprised me, because PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, and this particular production of it, is so creatively splendid and so strongly performed, that I waited for the hearty ovation that should have followed. It didn't come. Why weren't they getting it? Was it the wrong audience for a show like this?

But then something magical happened, and everything turned around for this late-blooming audience. The cast, all male except for one key female part, don drag and do a ribald mermaid routine that made this older audience seem like regulars at Hamburger Mary's. One main character sits atop the piano, a la Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys, and what he does with his glittery breast plates must be experienced. The audience whooped and hollered like it was Chippendales in the 1980s, and I was surprised one of the older women didn't fling her panties onto the stage. The audience that seemed like the walking dead in Act 1 suddenly burst to life in Act 2. I overheard one person say it's the single funniest sequence they've seen at Stage West. Maybe it's the show that sprung the audience to life; or maybe they suddenly seemed to understand what PETER AND THE STARCATCHER was ultimately about. Or perhaps a combination of both.

Make no mistake, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is more than just the plot of a Peter Pan prequel; it's how the story is being told. This is what makes the show stand out among other works: the creative use of props, as if children were performing this in their backyards or tree forts. Ropes are used as doorways or as raving waves in the sea. People become doors. A row of flags become the grin of a giant crocodile. A character levitates with the use of a see saw. It's a piece that works for the stage, on the stage, and its presentational theatricality cannot be duplicated in a movie. The story is less important than the manner of telling it, if that makes sense.

The cast is one of the strongest ensembles, a group of local community theatre all-stars. They move about the set constantly, like rogue pieces in a particularly wild game of chess.

As a no-name orphan boy later called Peter, Grant Sparr was born to play the role. Sparr is always a delight to watch in the various shows I've seen him in (starting with his work in high school several years ago), and he fits this part like a glove--sort of a man-child, looking a lot younger than his twenty years. It's interesting that the child who never grows up and later can actually fly ultimately anchors the show. As the lone female of the cast, Jess Virginia as Molly is astonishingly strong and physically matches up well with yon Peter. They are the heart and soul of PETER AND THE STARCTACHER, and if we don't root for them, there's no show.

Marc Sanders is the perfect Smee, a one-man groupie for the evil Black Stache. At one point he cries out, "Black Stache...2024!" and I had to burst out laughing.

W. Paul Wade is commanding in the several roles that he plays, and the imposing Ryan Rogers, back on stage after almost a decade hiatus, brings a likable menace to Alf. Ken Grace, who gets to do double duty as Mrs. Bumbrake and a mermaid named Teacher, is quite fun to watch. Bryce Thomas as Prentiss shows much promise. And the rest of the ensemble, including Drew Hackworth, Jason Chase, Anthony Agnelli and young Charlton Smith, entertainingly get the job done.

But the show belongs to whoever plays malaprop-prone Black Stache, the baddie of baddies, a pre-Captain Hook who lustily enjoys his own villainy. (His name Black Stache is obviously an homage to Blackbeard.) I can't say that Ryan Bintz was born to be bad Black Stache, because he may be the nicest person offstage and is a renowned educator and Pasco County Teacher of the Year, but you wouldn't know he possessed any niceness by his feats in this show. It's a wicked turn. And the show exploded to life when his hilariously iniquitous Black Stache appeared. Imagine Hedley Lamarr from Blazing Saddles, but not played by Harvey Korman; imagine if John Waters took over the role, and that will give you an idea of the purposely prissy brilliance Bintz brings to this Stache.

Great as the ensemble is, not everything is perfect in Neverland. Some of the musical numbers, with the exception of the aforementioned unforgettable mermaid routine (which rightfully showcased Ryan Bintz's glorious singing ability), left much to be desired. The vocals weren't as spot-on as we expect and sometimes sounded like a group of Peter Bradys when his voice changed in The Brady Bunch (remember "Time to Change"?). Also, there was way too much screaming and running around for no real purpose. It became constant, like an unwieldy classroom of misfits after their substitute teacher stormed out. The screaming became way too frequent that I wanted to cover my ears at times. A minor amount of this is fine, but it became sort of a Groundhog Day of screaming and running around--over and over and over. We got the idea of this pandemonium the first dozen times.

Thankfully there are live musicians present to play Wayne Barker's score, the first live band at Stage West since the pandemic: Kyle Collins, Erin Morgan, Carly Raferty, Dixie Lay and Sandy Mosley with musical direction by Brady Lay. Nothing beats the wonders of a live band.

Overall tech-wise the show works fine. Two hundred light changes were involved, mostly to satisfactory effect. Sound was sometimes an issue--someone's mic not working, for instance--but this became only a minor point. And the costumes, especially the hilarious draggy mermaid attire, suit the show quite well.

The staging by director Mark Burdette, aided by choreographer Jeanine Martin-Rogers, is ingenious. The director understands the underlined meaning of the show--that it's like children telling this tale--the ultimate story about childhood--in the most imaginative and inventive of ways. It may start of all over the place, and parts of it may be over the top, but we get it. I've seen several shows at Stage West, and shelving some of my issues with parts of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, this is one of the better shows I've ever experienced there. It's unlike anything you've ever seen, and it sadly closes after one more performance: 2:00 PM on Sunday, November 13.

PETER AND THE STARCATCHER brings out the child in all of us. It's a joyous show, so fun and crazy and convoluted, yet it's also heartbreaking. Not for Peter Pan and the wonders of Neverland, but for all of the adults who look back at the wonders of their own youths. They used to put on shows in the backyard on a whim, but then they grew up and stopped. So many of them ventured into the real world of financial worries, job pressures and family responsibilities. That's why I love the theatre so much. We are always children when we venture on the stage or in the audience. As PETER AND THE STARCATCHER shows us, the theatre will always be a safe space for those of us who refuse to grow up.



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    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in ... (read more about this author)


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