February 7, 2017
When Tyler Michaels, as an orphan with no name, sat on the stage floor at the Ritz Theater pleading “All I want is to be a boy for a while,” my throat tightened as I felt the urge to shout out, “Me too!” Who can resist the lure of the boy who becomes Peter Pan and never grows up, whose life is one adventure after another in Neverland, and who gets through them all unscathed? Of course, his is the province of children, but something in that boy stirs the adult heart every time—at least, for this adult.
Peter and the Starcatcher is a play by Rick Elice based on the novel “Peter and the Starcatchers” by John Barry and Ridley Pearson. It is an invented back-story for Peter Pan, revealing how he came to be in Neverland, the creation of his devoted fairy partner Tinkerbell, and how he drew the eternal enmity of a foppish pirate captain—as well as how that pirate, who had been called Black Stache, lost his hand and acquired the name Captain Hook. It’s an origins story for the original super hero of many a childhood.
Okay, I confess, I’ve loved James M. Barrie’s creation all my life. “Peter Pan” was the first chapter book read to me as a very young child, and it was the first theater work I ever saw, by way of Mary Martin’s performance live on NBC in 1955 and again in 1956. I doubted that I had the bravado to be Peter Pan—besides, there could only be one Peter—but I imagined finding eternal bliss as a lost boy. Yet, I never wondered from whence Peter, or Tink or Hook had come. I was perfectly able to accept the idea that they had just appeared, spawned out of the same magic dust Peter uses to teach children to fly. Well, thank goodness Barry and Pearson wanted some answers and put them in a book, and that Rick Elice thought it would be a good idea to put those answers on a stage. Even more fortunate, Theater Latté Da had the brilliant notion to include Peter and the Starcatcher in their current season.
As delightfully fanciful as the story is, the manner in which it is told turns it into the merriest thing to turn up on a stage in many years. It uses the most basic props (a plunger and a tennis racket become swords in a duel between Peter and Hook), an English music hall sensibility, and a set that looks like a mad hatter’s attic, framed by a giant octopus with its tentacles stretched over the proscenium. The constant silliness to the proceedings is made all the more fun by the earnestness of the characters. Music, played on stringed instruments by actor Silas Sellnow, provides a jaunty soundscape, and occasional choral numbers add to the unruly playfulness. The text includes scads of double entendres, sly anachronisms, and unabashedly bad puns (of course, with puns, the worse they are, the better).
The play is set in 1885, well into the reign of Queen Victoria, whose likeness hangs on one side of the stage, lighting up at each mention of her royal name. Three orphan boys are sold off and put aboard the good ship Neverland to become slaves to the king of the far off island of Rundoon, though the boys believe they are on their way to be the king’s special helpers. Also on board is Molly, the precocious and accomplished 13-year-old daughter of Lord Aster. Lord Aster, a widower, takes Molly with him on his many world travels, but this time they are traveling on separate ships to Rundoon. He is sailing on The Wasp, a swifter vessel, to dispose of a trunk of containing magical staff stuff in the world’s hottest volcano, Mount Jalapeño, which is also on Rundoon. It is because his mission is so dangerous that Lord Aster insists Molly travel separately, under the protection of her nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake—a delightful character written to be played by a man, in the English pantomime tradition.
Soon after boarding the Neverland, Mrs. Bumbrake meets Alf, a coarse and flatulent old seafarer, and the two are attracted to one another, forming a twosome that provides laughs throughout the play. Molly meets the three orphan boys: Ted, who is obsessed with food; Prentiss, hung up on being the group leader; and one who became orphaned before being given a name. Meanwhile, Lord Aster realizes that The Wasp is no longer under the command of his friend Admiral Scott, but has been seized by pirates led by the nefarious and flamboyant Black Stache, aided by faithful first mate Smee. Black Stache demands the key to the trunk, but Lord Aster maintains a stiff upper lip, always the Brit.
From this start, the rollicking story includes: a native island people called the Mollusks who are led by Chief Fighting Prawn; incandescent mermaids; annoying yellow birds; a flying cat; swordplay; a huge man-eating crocodile named Mr. Grin; a near drowning; two identical trunks—one packed with treasure, the other a decoy—that get switched (talk about tired conventions made sparkling new); surprising kisses. And the boy without a name gains not only a name—Peter Pan—but a home—Neverland. More than that, he learns that a leader is one who puts others before himself. As Peter proves himself a hero, Black Stache (who has now become Captain Hook, but I’m not about to tell you how that happens) rejoices, for with a genuine hero to do battle against, he can be a genuine villain.
The entire cast shines from start to finish. All praise to Tyler Michaels as Peter, a role he already proved himself born to play at Children’s Theater Company’s production of Peter Pan a couple of years back. This time out, Michaels portrays an even richer character, for he must grow from sullen and cynical into boy hero, experiencing pangs of first love along the way. Michael’s physical dexterity—making leaping about the scenery, hanging from a rope, crouching like a frog—seem like no more effort than bending a pinky. He is, as always, a joy to watch.
But he is not alone. Pearce Bunting is terrifically self-absorbed and decadent as Black Stache, rolling through both the wordplay and swordplay with ease, and moving about the stage with haughty swagger. Megan Burns is delightful as Molly—chatty, accomplished, competitive and bossy, yet endearing. Adam Qualls is hilarious as both Smee and Alf, while Craig Johnson steals every scene he is in as Mrs. Bumbrake and a tricked-out mermaid named Teacher who brings enlightenment to Peter. Ricardo Beaird and Silas Sellnow warm the heart while raising laughs as the orphans Prentiss and Ted.
Everything about the physical production—Joel Sass’s eye-filling set, Sonya Berlovitz’s glorious costumes, Marcus Dilliard’s lighting, and Sean Healey’s sound design—could not be bettered. Sass also directs the piece, keeping it moving at a breakneck pace, with pauses just brief enough to make sure the jokes land (and they do!). The characters on occasion speak directly to the audience, making it clear they know this is just a play, just pretend, but they go back to playing their parts with the utmost sincerity, just like children at play, pretending to be cops and robbers, or perhaps Peter Pan and pirates.
More than any show in recent memory, I was saddened when Peter and the Starcatcher came to an end. Presented with fizz and humor and heart, like the boy at the center of the tale, it is a worthy addition to a story that never grows old.
Peter and the Starcatcher continues through February 26, 2017, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $35.00 – $48.00. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to theaterlatteda.com.
Writer: Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson; Music: Wayne Barker; Director and Scenic Design: Joel Sass; Music Director: Denise Prosek; Choreography: Carl Flink; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Costume Design Assistant: Jeni O’Malley; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard’s; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Wig Design: Andrea Moriarity; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Technical Director: Stein Rosburg; Stage Manager: Andrea K. Bowman; Assistant Director: Eric Norton; Assistant Stage Manager: April Harding; Production Manager: Allen Weeks.
Cast: Ricardo Beaird (Prentiss), Pearce Bunting (Black Stache/Mack), Megan Burns (Molly), Craig Johnson (Grempkin/ Mrs. Bumbrake/ Teacher), Tyler Michaels (Boy/Peter) Adam Qualls (Smee/Alf), James Rodriguez (Slank/Rufus/Hawking Clam), Silas Sellnow (Ted), Andre Shoals (Lord Aster/Fighting Prawn).