Sunday, May 20, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher

Peter and the Starcatcher, at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

Sure, I like plays that weigh in on serious subjects. But every once in awhile, it's nice to balance those doses of stark reality with a touch of whimsy.

Peter and the Starcatcher, an energetic and exhilarating prequel to Peter Pan, the story of a boy who never grows up, pretty much fits the bill. The inventive stagecraft - doing a lot with a few props and actors playing multiple roles - reminded me of another show I loved, The 39 Steps.

And it's a grand adventure story: there's a ship called the Never Land that embarks a perilous voyage to a tropical island, a trunk filled with a mysterious treasure, dastardly pirates and bedraggled orphans and singing mermaids and representing her majesty Queen Victoria, a British ambassador and his precocious young daughter.

Donyale Werle's set captured the dank cramped quarters of a sailing ship in the first act and the lush green island in the second act. A giant pineapple - a symbol of hospitality - hangs in the center of the fake wooden proscenium. It gave the show an old fashioned music hall atmosphere.

What truly carried the day for me were the winning performances.

As Molly Aster, Celia Keenan-Bolger had the voice and mannerisms of a young girl down pat.  I adored her character - a spunky and determined heroine. Christian Borle, as the pirate Black Stache was hilarious, with a thick Groucho Marx mustache and a zaniness that reminded me of the best of Monty Python. Adam Chanler-Berat was so endearing as the hapless orphan boy Molly befriends. And what a treat to see Arnie Burton, from The 39 Steps, in another terrific comedic turn as the feisty governess Mrs. Bumbrake.

Unfortunately, you can have too much of a good thing. There were times when Peter and the Starcatcher, adapted by Rick Elice from the children's novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, felt a little overstuffed, like it was trying too hard to be clever.

I'll admit I'm not as up on my Peter Pan as I should be and the first act whizzed by so quickly that I think I missed some key plot points. Then in the second act things slowed considerably, to the point where it almost felt too slow.

Still, I may be over-thinking this. The boy sitting next to me, who couldn't have been more than 10, told me that he'd read the books and he seemed enthralled. In fact, it was great to see so many kids in the audience so clearly enjoying themselves. Sure some of the jokes aimed at adults - a Philip Glass reference for example - probably went over their heads but there were lots of laughs.

So if I missed a few things, that's fine. Peter and the Starcatcher is an entertaining ride, with the kind of imagination that reminds you what's so unique about going to the theatre.

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