Monday, April 16, 2012

REVIEW: Peter and the Starcatcher

Review of the Saturday, April 14 matinee preview at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City.  Starring Christian Borle, Adam Chanler-Berat and Celia Keenan-Bolger.  A new play by Rick Elice.  Based upon the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Music by Wayne Barker.  Movement by Steven Hoggett.  Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers.  2 hours, 30 minutes including one intermission.

Grade: A+

I often take time to look at the critical quotes that are plastered around the theatres on Broadway and smirk at the hyperbole forced wit that inevitably gets those choice words on a sign in the first place.  Many times, after the show is over, I look at them as I leave and smirk even more and even roll my eyes.  "Astonishing!" "A gift to the theatrical gods!" "Raises the roof!" (My personal favorite...)   The Brooks Atkinson Theatre is already adorned with several such huzzahs from the press for the new play Peter and the Starcatcher which opened there last night, having played a critically-acclaimed engagement at New York Theatre Workshop last season.  And if there is any justice in the world, those aforementioned theatre gods will be very happy campers and none of those quotes will cause anyone to roll their eyes or smirk.  I certainly won't - especially as I sit here typing, trying to think of my own bon mot to see on a marquee.  Why?  Because this play is an exhilarating thrill ride of theatricality that will leave even the most cynical theatre-goer flying with a fancy to find the elusive Neverland and bask in the fun of being young once again.

Imagination is really the star of the show here, as it should be, considering we are discovering the making of a myth/legend/boyhood hero like Peter Pan.  This is a world where a golden proscenium frames the proceedings, made up of all things Pan - boy toys like Ninja Turtle action figures, Barrel o' Monkeys, and rubber alligators - vie for space with all things grown up - wine bottle corks and rope configured into sunbursts, while clock pieces and kitchen timers ominously remind that minutes are ticking by.  This is a place where the floor and the walls are made up of old wooden planks just begging to become tree forts, G.I. Joe hideouts, and adventure-filled climbs into old abandoned buildings.  And then the play starts, and so much junk - still ripe with devious ideas of little boys - transforms instantly into not one, but TWO mysterious and devilishly dangerous ships run by pirates and other scurvy scum.

The world of Peter and the Starcatcher as ingeniously designed by Donyale Werle and moodily, thrillingly lit by Jeff Croiter is in a constant state of metamorphosis, as if, like the children who inhabit this world, it grows tired of one notion just as quickly as it dreams up another.  And what a better way to conjure up a world no longer with us and still another that only exists in dreams than by using all of the fanciful things a little boy might carry in his pockets?  Here, a length of rope can be the confines of a ship's small cabin, a the railing around a majestic sailing ship or the crashing waves during storm so mighty, it threatens to blow the ocean's water into outer space.  Here a length of blanket or old sheet can be a nanny's apron, the entrance to a cave or a magical mermaid's tale.  Grubby work boots and tattered pants can be an orphan's play clothes or a sea captain's majestic uniform.  And I may never look at kitchen utensils the same way again - squeeze bottles and hand whisks, for example, tell us we are seeing merMAIDS, not merMEN. (Inventive costumes by designer Paloma Young.)  And just maybe stuffed animals CAN fly - on the end of a stick with wicked cool whooshing sounds and even better man-made cat screams.

The Company of
Peter and the Starcatcher

The boundless imagination of the entire creative staff is the production's greatest asset, very carefully and purposefully guided by co-directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers.  Watching this production, you can see what each of these talented men brings to the table - Rees won a Tony for working on another epic, creatively told and very British tale, Nicholas Nickleby, while the much-acclaimed young director Timbers (of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Pee Wee Herman Show on Broadway) brings a modern edginess (and a few modern references dropped into the story just to keep it hip enough for those who need such validation).  It is very clear from the moment it starts that the two captains of this ship are completely in sync.  I often complain that shows will have wonderful concepts that are not fully carried out.  That is most definitely not the case here.

The unity of purpose and the whole methodology of telling this story - a unique vocabulary, to be sure - completely carries over into one on the tightest companies of actors I have witnessed on the stage in several seasons.  And it is not just that they know the intricate staging and movement (created by American Idiot and Once's Steven Hoggett), it is that they are completely and utterly as one.  The star of one scene is a wall in the next; the boy who becomes Peter is just as likely to be giving a monologue as he is carrying of a set piece.  And, frankly, it isn't just a luxury of stylized theatrical storytelling, it is a safety necessity.  There is some seriously breath-taking and downright dangerous stuff being done by these people.  And you never once have that feeling that at any second something could/would go wrong (unlike the utterly different nerve-wracking "thrill" of staging over at the Foxwoods).

The Company

There are a dozen actors in this company that makes a very strong case for the creation of an Ensemble Acting Tony.  It seems almost unfair to single out any of them, so cohesive a unit are they.  But each one makes a great impression. Isaiah Johnson makes a macho turn as the stalwart "good guy captain," no small feat considering he is bound and gagged most of the time!  And Teddy Bergman makes a fun impression in one of his many roles as the worker-bee ship's mate that no one can remember his name.  Matt D'Amico is a spine-tingling pirate with a penchant for capturing orphans and using a whip on them. The Boy's two orphan companions are winningly played by Carson Elrod and David Rossmer, both of whom manage to be great sidekicks and even better friends in the long run.  Greg Hildreth is a teddy bear of a guy with a soft spot in his heart just big enough to make you not hate pirates completely - his sheepish grin will warm your heart.

Kevin Del Aguila and Christian Borle

While every actor in the cast plays many roles, these play the main co-stars.  Kevin Del Aguila makes a sweet, absent-minded yet wise Smee.  Rick Holmes is a terrific father and agent of Queen Victoria's, here on a dangerous mission to rid the world of a mysterious treasure, that requires, among other things, that he be fluent in Norwegian, porpoise and dodo bird!  Both guys are a riot.  But it is Arnie Burton's scene-stealing turn as a British nanny (think a silly Mary Poppins) that is delightful from start to finish.  The man can work a hair bun and wrist purse, let me tell you!

Where to start in praise of the three leading players?  All three are giving Tony-worthy performances of amazing breadth - playing high comedy, low comedy, physical comedy, and a surprising depth of serious drama, too.

Molly and Captain Aster meet the orphans

The lone female in the cast, Celia Keenan-Bolger plays Molly, a self-aware precocious child with the mind of a full grown woman, who wants desperately to grow up so she can go on "missions" with her beloved father.  That she is consistently interesting and lovable while still being a precocious child and still never annoying in that "I-could-be-in-Annie" kind of way is to her credit.  I suppose it helps that she really is an adult woman playing a child that makes her entirely believable, but not ever annoying.  As written, she also gets a beautiful close-of-show scene where she gets to display her considerable dramatic skill.  I dare you to not get at least misty-eyed!

Adam Chanler-Berat and
Celia Keenan-Bolger

Similarly, Adam Chanler-Berat as The Boy (who becomes Peter Pan), gets to show off the complete range of his skills as a physical, comic and dramatic actor.  He gets thrown around the set, chased by the bad guys, fights the pirates, his own friends and Molly, the girl who teaches him to be happy.  Perhaps the most remarkable thing about his masterful performance, though, is that in a sea of theatricality and larger-than-life emotions, some of the best parts of his performance are in the subtleties of his portrayal of  a man-child who wants only to have a home and to spend some time as a real boy before returning to the adult world in which he has already been forcibly and unwillingly to live.  The pain and anguish, disappointment and anger in his large dark eyes betray the bravado of his devil-may-care swagger and world-weary grin.  I found myself immediately drawn to and rooting for this Boy; Mr. Chanler-Berat's performance is the glue that holds the whole thing emotionally together.

Matt D'Amico, Rick Holmes, Isaiah Johnson,
Adam Chanler-Berat and Christian Borle

It is no secret that Christian Borle steals the show here.  When I hear that much hype ahead of time, I tend to go in with a skeptical "Oh yeah? Prove it to me!" attitude, and frequently, I am disappointed.  That is most definitely NOT the case here.  Yes, he threatens to steal every scene he is in, and why not?  Isn't that the goal of every ego-maniacal super villain?  That Mr. Borle throws himself so completely into the role is both expected - he is a terrific actor - and somehow magically surprising.  He plays the evil Black Stache, the pirate who will become Captain Hook.  Equal parts serious villain and wink-wink-nudge-nudge vaudevillian, Borle is a laugh riot and pleasingly dangerous.  He walks that very thin line between broad comedy and over-doing it with the expertise of a high wire artist.  And yet, for all of the impact he makes as the swashbuckling bad guy, I admire that he avoids any sign of "star power" in the scenes where he is a wall, a bench or a one word contributor to a choral reading passage in the stylized script.  I won't be at all surprised if his name is called during the announcement of the Tony nominations.

Playwright Rick Elice has done a truly magnificent job in paring down this complicated story, allowing us to savor each moment without lingering too long, getting us excited and staying there.  There are panto scenes, conventional drama scenes, choral readings and even a production number (music - including terrific musical "sound effects" by Wayne Barker)! And, as the play progresses and the birth of each element of the Peter Pan myth we come in knowing is given birth before us, the show also becomes a series of ah-ha moments.  And he (and credit is due Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson who wrote the novel) does this in such a way that you rarely see it coming.  How does a boy become Peter Pan? Why doesn't Peter ever grow up?  Who are the Lost Boys?  How does Smee come to be?  Why is the ultimate pirate villain soon to become the nefarious Captain Hook?  And how does Peter know where to go to hear the best bedtime stories?  Interested in Tinkerbell?  Why does the crocodile tick like a clock?  All of this and so much more are delightfully revealed in this action-packed thrill ride of a script.  To its credit, too, and like the best thrill rides, there are brief moments in the show to collect your breath reflect on what you've been through and then, stomach in a knot, gulping air in "terror" you see the next thrill and the next ahead until everything finally comes down to that last hill, a fast roar through that proverbial tunnel and you arrive at the conclusion, laughing, cheering and fully sated.  And like the very best amusement rides, when you leave this play, you 'll probably find yourself asking, "Can we go again, PLEASE?"

Black Stache and Company

There is an epic amount of story in this tale of the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, and future creators of  musicals and plays based upon epic works should take note from this master class of succinctness and brevity: say what you have to say in an interesting and memorable way ONCE and move on.  (Take a lesson here, Les Miz!)  And just a note to the folks over at Spider-Man and Wicked: this play is telling the story of a boy who flies without a single rope around his waist, cherry-picker in sight or series of wires sticking out of his back.  And he (and the entire production) not only flies, he soars!  And he never leaves the ground.  The imagination trumps technology every time.

(Photos by O+M Co.)

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