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Elice's play is based on Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's children's novel which developed a back story for J. M. Barrie's ever popular saga about the never aging, ever beloved Peter Pan and the Darling family. Except for a welcome 10 minute trim and some minor diddling with the text and staging directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers have moved Peter and the Starcatcher to the Brooks Atkinson with its downtown edge intact. The reason the diddling is barely noticeable is that the show fits as comfortably into its uptown home, as it did the one downtown. As it didn't look like a big show squeezed into the intimate New York Theatre Workshop, it doesn't feel too small in its more spacious, less intimate new home. The ability of the play itself to fill all those seats for an extended run is another matter, but I'll get to that later.
Rees and Timbers are fortunate to have retained all but one of the amazingly talented and versatile ensemble. That's 12 actors to play 50 characters and help to establish the multiple story threads with a ladder, a rope and other simple and home-made looking props.
Even before the high profile name recognition that came with his being a regular in the TV musical Smash, Christian Borle stood out as the aptly named Stache (short for the moustache sported by Groucho Marx, memories of whose looks and sharp humor Borle's Stache evokes). He's better and funnier than ever this time around. I could watch the scene where we see how he became Captain Hook a third time!.
Adam Chanler-Berat has, if anything, deepened the vulnerability of the nameless boy who becomes Peter Pan. Ceilia Keenan-Bolger is again adorably smart as Molly, the only girl on board though I still wish she could fly just a bit higher. She's actually the second Keenan-Bolger to be in a boy-centric off to on Broadway show. Brother Andrew plays Crutchie in the recently opened musical, Newsies. The one new cast member in Peter and the Starcatcher, Rick Holmes as Lord Aster, deserves the same high marks as the rest of the ensemble.
The 2-man band (Marco Pagula and Dean Prouty) has not been enlarged as was the case for Once, another NYTW show that recently made it to Broadway. But then is a musical and Peter and the Starcatcher is a play that happens to include songs and musical theater elements, notably a high kicking chorus line number with the ensemble in glitzy mermaid costumes. Steven Hoggert, whose movement choreography is a major plus in Once, handles the mermaid show stopper with equal panache, which is also true for the musical accompaniment. The musicians' most impressive contributions are again the sound affects that heighten the mood of the narrative. A special round of applause is also due to Jeff Croiter for his lighting which seems even richer now than previously.
To get back to this play's successful physical transition to a Broadway house and whether the same can be said for the play itself, While whimsical charm is a big plus, the tendency to let the whimsy and clever allusions get out of hand has come along with all the positive elements. The super simplicity of the first part and the shift to more sophisticated more Broadway-ish stagecraft for the second act, tend to result in something of a split personality. Though the low-tech story staging of the initial scenes can charm the child within the adult audience, it's not all that child friendly. Children accustomed to a lot of graphic details, are likely to be confused as to what's going on, at least if they're younger than ten.
Actually, for the downtown premiere the marketing people stated that the adaptation of the children's novel was written to appeal to adults who weren't too jaded to get back in touch with the child within them. This segments the theater going adults, into those who will be respond to this colorful story telling concept, and those for whom some, of the show's cleverness seems a bit too made up to really let story take them out of their adult selves.
Given the structural resemblance to Wicked, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, adults are now invited to bring kids aged 10 and up. Judging from the audience at the preview I attended, a lot of moms and dads are bringing much younger kids — ignoring the age appropriate suggestion in the belief that any show about Peter Pan should work for any age — and perhaps also expecting this to be more musical than play. I sat next to two families with six kids well below the suggested age. Sure enough, the kids fidgeted, the mothers were more concerned with their fidgeting than the show, and everybody left at intermission. A somewhat older boy and his mother who moved into one of the empty seats were much happier with what they saw.
Since my NYTW review with more details about the interlocking adventures still applies. I've re-posted it below the Broadway production notes and suggest you continue reading by clicking here
Broadway Production Notes Peter and the Starcatcher
Written by Rick Elice
Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers
Based upon the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Cast: Adam Chanler-Berat (Peter), Christian Borle (Black Stache), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Molly), Teddy Bergman (Fighting Prawn), Arnie Burton (Mrs. Bumbrake), Matt D’Amico (Slank), Hawking Clam (Fizz), Brandon Dirden (Captain Scott), Carson Elrod (Prentiss), Kevin Del Aguila (Smee), Greg Hildreth (Alf), Rick Holmes (Lord Aster), David Rossmer (Ted)
Music by Wayne Barker
Movement by Steven Hoggett
Music direction by Marco Paguia
Set design by Donyale Werle
Costume design by Paloma Young
Lighting design by Jeff Croiter
Sound design by Darron L. West
Stage Manager: Clifford Schwartz
Rrunning Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 12, 2011 press preview
New York Theatre Workshop review and production notes
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The late, great Leonard Bernstein wrote the music and songs for the first musical Peter Pan in 1950 which was followed by the most widely seen musical version with Mary Martin singing songs composed by Mark Charlap and Jules Styne and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Kathy Rigby took the flying fantasy to new heights in a revival of the musical that had her soar, not just to the ceiling of the Darling nursery, but clear across the entire orchestra. One of my favorite versions was Peter and Wendy, the offbeat and spectacularly imaginative takes on the never-aging story by the Mabou Mines in which a single narrator evoked the personalities of all the characters with seven puppeteers animating an adorable puppet Peter and a deliciously quirky Captain Hook whose nemesis, the Crocodile, morphed right on stage from the cuddly dog-nursemaid, Nana.
As you can see, I'm a sucker for all things Peter Pan and not a purist when it comes to embracing unconventional takes on the famous Barrie characters. I therefore headed to NYTW in the Bowery eager to see what promised to be not just another adaptation, but an entirely new concept, this one not based on Barrie's novel, but on the first of a series of successful children's books for age 10 to 14 readers by mystery writer Ridley Pearson and humorist Dave Barry. Their idea was to write a backstory for the classic saga that would incorporate the iconic characters into a brand-new adventure in which the reader would learn how Peter got his name, why the pirate still roving the seas came to be called Captain Hook and to meet the Darling characters in the guise of a very model of a patriotic Victorian gentleman, his extraordinarily brainy and independent daughter Molly.
While Peter and the Starcatcher at NYTW is based on Pearson and Barry's book (same title but with an "s" to pluralize the Starcatcher), it's been moved from page to stage with an eye to shedding its children's book label. The creative team has been quoted as saying that their target audience was adult. The children they addressed were the ones still lodged inside sophisticated, open-minded adults. Unlike that super hit, Wicked, also built around a backstory of a beloved children's book and created as a multiple ticket selling family show, with the kids the predominant audience, in Peter and the Starcatcher, the Pearson and Barry concept has been adultized.
The man credited with this adultizing is Rick Elice, best known for the musicals Jersey Boys and The Addams Family. For all its cleverness, the adult audience pitch at times strains under the weight of a few too many smarty-pants literary and contemporary life style allusions (One of the cleverest comes when the villainous Black Stache, so named for his painted Groucho Marx-like moustache, gives the nameless Boy his name and declares it to be "evocative as a madeleine in a Proust novel." and finally predicts the possibility of their becoming an eternally famous hero and villain team and declare Peter to be "the yin to my yang" and " the semi to my colon").
To give Elice's text an extra downtown edge (with the Disney Theatrical backing indicating uptown ambitions), the show has two directors with an affinity for whimsical, atypical theater: Roger Rees and Alex Timbers. Rees is also an actor ( The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980 and soon to take over from Nathan Lane in the Elice scripted The Addams Family. Timbers has been on board for a number of off the beaten path musicals, most recently Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
As Elice's script at times tends to be too clever for its own good, so the directors' heavy reliance on narration and extensive multiple role playing tends to keep the individual characters and plot threads from being more fully developed. Despite the conceptual similarities to Wicked this is more a play with music than a musical with an orchestra consisting of a pianist (Marco Paguia and a percussionist (Deanne Prouty) each housed in a specially constructed balcony at each side of the stage.
While the people in charge of casting the show are starcatchers in their own right, having caught hold of such musical theater veterans like Celia Keenan-Bolger (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Les Miserables), Christian Borle (Legally Blonde, On the Town) and Adam Chandler-Berat (Next to Normal), there are not a lot of songs and most of those are ensemble numbers rather than show stopping ballads or duets. In fact, the work of that two-piece orchestra is most impressive in creating sound effects and incidental music.
Except for the fun second act curtain raiser in which a 99% in drag chorus line of busty mermaids wiggle glittery tails, the dancing comes in the form of choreographed movement. Not that this is a drawback since it's handled by Steven Hoggett who so ably choreographed a quite different group of alienated youths in American Idiot and a unit of Scottish soldiers in Black Watch. And while that tail-flipping chorus number is backed by a gorgeous music hall style curtain and Donyale Werle's scenic design includes a gold proscenium and many beautiful stage pictures, some the most effective scenic touches are created by means of super simple props and inventive physicality, with the actors often using their bodies and props like ropes to create the ship and shore world in which their adventures play out.
The plot is certainly an action-packed adventure tale. Peter (nameless when we first meet him) and his fellow Lost Boys are in danger of becoming slaves of the despotic Zarboff the king of Rundoon. For a touch of mystery there's a treasure chest with leftover bits of shooting stars with magical powers for good or with weapons of mass destruction potential, depending on who gets hold of them. For Lord Aster (Karl Kenzler) that means delivering the chest to Queen Victoria. The ship Neverland's nasty captain Bill Slank (Matt D'Amico identifying himself as "Slank by name, Slank by nature. Rhymes with Plank, which makes two things ye don't wanna cross on the Neverland") is on the side of the play's ueber villain, Black Stache (Christian Borle), who'll keep his mustache but lose his hand.
I could go on but you get the idea — it's the good guys versus the bad, with the former captured and in danger of losing their lives but of course triumphing in the end. And, oh yes, while there are no cell phones in this world, Lord Aster arms his beloved daughter Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger) with an amulet that enables her to communicate with him long distance and effect the inevitable happy ending.
Given that National Women's History Month was launched with three shows without a single woman on stage (Timon of Athens, That Championship Season and Irondale's Treasure Island), it's good to have at least one female on stage, and that one the excellent Keenan-Bolger the heroic starcatcher of the title. However, one can't help wishing that she'd been allowed to fly just a little more impressively.
The most fun part goes to Christian Borle as the villainous Stache and the actor more than makes the most of it. Adam Chanler-Berat is quite touching as the boy who will never grow up. Arnie Burton, clearly has a wonderful time as Molly's Nanny Mrs. Bumbrake, as does Greg Hildreth as Alf, her "white knight."
The whole ensemble deftly takes on some 50 characters that besides pirates, orphans, island natives and mermaids, include the subjects of a mollusk king named Fighting Prawn. The persona and scene shifts are abetted by Jeff Croiter's suble lighting and Paloma Young's flavorful costumes and accessories. Her found object bras for the mermaid chorines are especially eye popping.
At almost two and a half hours Elice's working overtime to be clever does get to be a bit tiresome, and would benefit from some editing. It wouldn't hurt to also trim some of the too sophomoric stage business.
Will this abundance of imagination and variety give viewers the sense of really entering another world as is common with true to Barrie's spirit shows? I suspect that, like me, this Peter's inventive, fun and colorful adventures will feel too made-up to really take all of you out of yourself.