Friday, October 25, 2013

Now at the Majestic: 'Peter and the Starcatcher' is Kid-Friendly Whimsical Slapstick

Posted By on Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 2:51 PM

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The Majestic follows up its box-office smash The Book of Mormon with the opposite of that profanity-laden, intentionally offensive musical: the rollicking and kid-friendly entertainment Peter and the Starcatcher, which began life as a surprise off-Broadway hit, and eventually swept its way onto the Great White Way. (There, it racked up an impressive number of Tony Awards, including those for design.) Adapted from Dave Barry’s recent novel, Starcatcher is a sort of prequel to J. M. Barrie’s stories of the twinkly-toed Peter Pan, and (as in the musical Wicked) it often provides amusing and surprising etiologies for many of the iconic features of an imaginary world, including Tinkerbell, the Giant Crocodile, and especially that island not found on any chart: Neverland.

After closing on Broadway last year, Starcatcher re-opened off-Broadway in a much smaller space. In many ways, that’s because it’s always been a quintessentially off-Broadway show: big on imagination but never aiming to match the spectacle and bombast of today’s mega-musicals. (For that reason, the Majestic seems a bit too cavernous for the production – you should purchase seats as close to the stage as possible.) While the first twenty minutes chug along a bit more slowly than in Manhattan, the evening launches into high gear with the introduction of the flamboyant pirate Black Stache, here marvelously embodied by John Sanders. Sanders is terrific—and while it’s true that he gets the lion’s share of the script’s goofiest and groaning-est puns, he is also a top-notch physical comedian. (I don’t wish to give away the secret of his second act aria, but it’s as funny a moment as you’ll see on any stage this year.) The Stache, of course, must match wits with a magical Starcatcher (she collects stardust, and, no, let’s not examine the physics of this too closely) as well as with a suspiciously adrift—hell, I’ll just say it, lost—boy eventually named Peter.

The style of the production is firmly rooted in 1970’s Story Theatre, with a generous dollop of British pantomime: expect lots of cross-dressing and low-tech costume changes, as well as a constant barrage of ingeniously manipulated props. (For instance, check out the boobs on the mermaids.  And not for prurient reasons, you sickos.) Rick Elice’s adaptation is a never-ending stream of terrible puns and surprising anachronisms—there’s even a shout-out to Ayn Rand—while Wayne Barker contributes a few goofy music hall numbers and an accompanying score. The evening is directed to the hilt by Alex Timbers and Roger Rees; the latter cut his teeth on the original ground-breaking production of Nicholas Nickleby (1980) and one can see aspects of that sort of vivid story-telling in Starcatcher’s quicksilver scene changes. Donyale Werle’s amazing set design—particularly for the second act—demonstrates the triumph of genius over material. The simplest ropes, lanterns, and pennants combine to create images in a space even more wonderful than the Majestic: the audience’s imagination. Both Joey deBettencourt and Megan Stern turn in strong work as Peter and the Starcatcher (though, truth be told, Peter’s part is a little underwritten compared to the other two leads. Peter needs a better Staragent.)

The website for Starcatcher says that it’s appropriate for kids aged ten and up, and that seems about right. There is a lot of wordplay and I doubt that younger children will understand (much less enjoy) this particular sprint through Neverland. But for older children—and I include my forty-two-year-old self among that number—Peter and the Starcatcher is testimony to the power of talent and imagination on the American stage, and we should be grateful to Arts Center Enterprises for bringing such a polished and smart touring production to San Antonio: it’s as if they’ve caught a star.


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