Fairytales should seem magical—and parts of this prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, (adapted by Jersey Boys co-writer Rick Elice from humor writer Dave Barry and suspense novelist Ridley Pearson’s best-selling 2004 children’s novel) do deliver that sparkling sense of the impossible made possible. Without resorting to crashing chandeliers or the web-swinging acrobatics of superheroes, directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, set designer Donyale Werle, lighting designer Jeff Croiter, and movement director Steven Hoggett construct a setting that merely suggests scenery. With inventive simpleness, items such as ladders, toy boats, and the actors own bodies convey an ocean voyage, a terrifying pirate attack and shipwreck, and an island adventure merely through a collection of magical movements: a sea storm accelerates with the mere sway and shift of the actors’ torsos and erratic splashes of light; a rope becomes doorways, stairs, and locked rooms where captives sit in the dark waiting for rescue.
The play starts with the departure of the ship, Neverland, and its myriad of occupants: a pirate-like crew, three helpless orphans placed in a trunk on a dubious adventure, and a Nanny and her precocious charge, Molly. The daughter of Captain Scott, and part of a secret group that protects star stuff (a powerful star essence) from nefarious purposes, Molly comes off as a Sara Crewe sort—a girl who is more adult than child—who likes to make pronouncements such as “Something about the boy made her think she grew up,” which she says after first meeting Boy, the future Peter Pan. Like the Frances Hodgson Burnett character, she shares an unusual closeness with her father, who often leaves her alone. Molly sees something extraordinary in Boy and, after a shipwreck, they become friends as they shelter a chest of star stuff from pirates and other evil entities.
While the storyline follows the traditional premises of fairytales (good vs. evil, the power of friendship, the loss of love), its constant insertion of vaudevillian, almost in-the-know hipster humor distracts from the potential magic of its story and the original staging. More “Family Guy” than Disney, Starcatcher ultimately becomes grating as jokes about Philip Glass, “Can you hear me now?” commercials, and prosciutto make puns more important than emotion. Although billed as a play, Starcatcher offers several musical numbers (by composer Wayne Barker) that rarely add to the story’s development. For instance, the second act opening number offers a line of mermaid showgirls, mostly danced in drag by the nearly all-male cast. The number is both humorous and fun, yet there’s no purpose to it: it’s merely a cheap laugh.
Much of the cast from last year’s New York Theatre Workshop production return, including Christian Borle (TV’s “Smash”), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Tony Award nominee for The 25th Annual... Spelling Bee), and Adam Chanler-Berat (Next to Normal). For all, it is a triumphant reunion. As Black Stache, Borle injects the future Captain Hook with an over-the-top showiness, making him both a villain and a clown, as his slapstick acrobatics spins him across the stage, tripping with a dangerous precariousness over items like a chest. The theatrical version of Sasha Baron Cohen, Borle delights as he menaces his future adversary, Peter Pan. Keenan-Bolger gives Molly a sweetness and humility amid her know-it-all opinions that make her a strong, relatable multi-layered character. Chanler-Berat also shows Boy’s duality, and is both vulnerable and steel-flinted—a man-child who has seen too much and, yet, wants to linger in the innocence of youth despite leaving the possibilities of the future behind. The three, ultimately, become the sparkling stuff that makes Starcatcher enjoyable: for as the show states every villain needs his hero. And, for Boy and Molly every child needs that special person who helps them become what they are meant to be.
(Mezzanine; Broadway Box ticket)