Let's first get this very necessary accolade out of the way: South Coast Repertory's brand new production of Rick Elice's PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is, hands down, one of the most enjoyable, most thrilling, and most engagingly imaginative plays I have seen all season—a fitting capper to the Tony Award-winning Orange County theater's 51st year.
Yes, it's a somewhat bold statement for me to make about SCR's regional production—considering I have previously seen the original Tony-winning play's lavish, eye-popping national tour production when it stopped at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre more than a year ago. While I was definitely awed by the tour's wonderful wit and visual splendor, that production's staging of the jam-packed story itself—highly amusing in some parts, highly confounding in others—left me a bit scrambled and much less invested in the events and the characters, as I spent most of the time trying to decipher if I somehow missed an important story detail or two (or twelve).
But with SCR's delightful production—which continues performances in Costa Mesa through June 7—the play's hyperactive mixture of mirth and mayhem is re-calibrated by further emphasizing its seemingly "bare-bones" storytelling devices, resulting in one entertaining night of theater that both kids and adults will find quite a hoot.
The main objective here is to convey the play's outlandish, magic-laced narrative in a cleverly economical, yet still appealing way that not only charms and entertains the audience, but also, creates a communal space where its exposed trickery and transparent theatricality isn't just some cheap-trick ploy to seem like a hip, of-the-moment stage show. Rather, I truly believe in this staging's genuine intention to stoke imaginations—much like an enthusiastic parent reading a riveting bedtime story to an excited, engrossed child. No need for fully-embellished costumes or lavishly constructed sets here (although they're still pretty great). Why bother when the amusing story itself (and the giddy, extra-caffeinated ensemble) does most of the work?
I can confidently speak for the audience when I say that, in this production, I felt much more welcomed in, as if this troupe of cheeky, playful actors are actually just my talented close friends that have decided to "spontaneously" gather together to tell me a fantastic story in a fantastic fashion—all with pure theatrical ingenuity.
And, let me tell you... in the hands of this stellar, harmonious ensemble, it truly is! Not once did I feel perplexed or exhaustively put-off, nor did I ever feel detached from the on-going action or the humorous hijinks that this merry band of expressive loons wanted to share with its rapt audience.
It is that infectious enthusiasm for inventive staging and storytelling—plus a palpable openness in igniting the audience's shared glee—that makes this outstanding regional production of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, again, easily my favorite play of the season. Not only that, I seriously cannot recall the last time I laughed this boisterously and had this much unabashed joy from sitting through a play in quite some time. Here, we—the actors, the two musicians, and even us the audience—are all in on the jokes... and what a wonderful feeling that is to have and share in live theater!
This winning tweak presented in SCR's production can be attributed to director and choreographer Art Manke, with exemplary artistic assists from scenic designer Michael B. Raiford, costume designer Angela Balogh Calin, lighting designer Jaymi Lee Smith, and musical director David O (who is joined on stage by Joel Davel to provide plenty of sounds effects and musical accompaniment). The resulting production is nothing short of a superbly vivid iteration of Elice's new take on how Peter Pan became Peter Pan.
Origin stories, of course, are often a tricky premise to get right, but, luckily, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER plots one that feels wholly original, whip smart, and totally in sync with the universe author J.M. Barrie made infamous in his stories. Just as a special spider bite gave rise to a comic book web-slinging hero, Elice's play posits the magical way in which a young, nameless orphaned boy (the endearing Wyatt Fenner)—perpetually disappointed with the folly of adults—eventually becomes the ageless dude who flies around with a pixie and refuses to grow up.
"All grown ups lie!" bellows the boy, giving a not-so-subtle hint about his future.
But long before Peter flew into Wendy's nursery to rescue his shadow, the young man began life as an orphan. At the start of this particular day, he along with a couple of fellow orphans Prentiss (Paco Tolson) and Ted (Miles Fletcher) have just been sold away by Grempkin (Christian Barillas), the caretaker of the orphanage, to Bill Slank (David Nevell), the captain of The Neverland, a dilapidated old ship that has seen its share of rough seas. Against their will, the three scared lads are to be delivered to a far off island called Rundoon, where they have been promised to the island's King to serve as lowly servants.
Elsewhere on the other side of the busy dock, another ship is awaiting precious cargo. The Wasp—the fastest ship in the fleet steered by Captain Scott (J. Paul Boehmer)—has been commissioned by the Queen of England herself to transport an important trunk, supervised by the regal Lord Aster (Allen Gilmore). Not only has Lord Aster been put in charge of protecting the trunk's special contents, he also has to make sure that it is safely delivered to its proper destination, which happens to also be the kingdom of Rundoon.
So as an insurance policy, Lord Aster decides on having not one but two trunks destined for Rundoon: one trunk that holds the Queen's cargo, and another trunk to serve as a fake decoy, filled with nothing but worthless sand. The decoy trunk will then be placed aboard The Neverland, which just happens to be heading towards the same destination, albeit at a much slower and, apparently, much safer pace.
But unbeknownst to Lord Aster, the devious Captain Slank has pulled a switcheroo: he marks the Queen's trunk with an "X" so that it is mistakenly placed on his ship rather than on The Wasp. Uh oh.
Meanwhile, thinking that Slank's ship is a safer, slower alternative, Lord Aster decides to have his headstrong young daughter Molly (the lovely Gabrielle McClinton) and her aging nanny Mrs. Bumbrake (Tony Abatemarco) travel to Rundoon aboard The Neverland rather than with him on The Wasp. Molly, naturally, hates this idea. But after a conversation spoken in Dodo (both are fluent in the special language of Dodo birds), Lord Aster convinces Molly to stay aboard The Neverland, and even gives her a shiny trinket to wear around her neck—a similar one to the one he wears—which is to be "used" only if she finds herself in trouble.
Unfortunately, trouble seems to have arrived sooner than she would have liked. Once her father departs with The Wasp, Slank's accommodating demeanor dissolves and both she and Mrs. Bumbrake are forcibly confined to a modest cabin below deck for the remainder of the journey. But it is way, way down below deck, however, where Molly discovers the dungeon where the three orphans are kept. As expected, Molly helps free them—and is especially fascinated by the sensitive one that has no name (cue the "aaawwwws"). During their escape, the young quartet discovers a "flying cat"—which, for Molly, indicates that the rare substance called "starstuff" must be aboard!
Back over on The Wasp things aren't any better, either. To Lord Aster's shock, the ship has been overtaken by pirates, led by the ultra-villainous Black Stache (the hilariously over-the-top Matt McGrath) and his henchman-in-waiting Smee (Kasey Mahaffy). Stache manages to grab the key to the trunk, only to be disappointed by its fake-out contents. Smee deduces that the real trunk must be aboard The Neverland instead, prompting Stache to order a pursuit of the other ship!
For his part, Lord Aster communicates with Molly via their matching necklaces, warning her that The Wasp, now under Black Stache's command, is chasing after them so that the pirate can get his hands on the Queen's real trunk. By now Molly is heavily involved in the mission, prompting her to finally divulge her secret to the orphan boys: that she is an "Apprentice Starcatcher." Full-fledged Starcatchers are a few select special people whose ultimate task is to collect "starstuff" that descend from the skies all over the world. These Starcatchers must then protect the substance from getting in the wrong hands. However, the only way to truly ensure the proper disposal of "starstuff" is to dump it into the fiery mouth of Mt. Jalapeño, an active volcano located in—yep—the remote island Rundoon!
Will Molly succeed in her new mission? Will the nameless boy—who is clearly crushing back hard on Molly—help her out? Will Black Stache and his evil pirate cohorts catch up to The Neverland and steal the Queen's treasure? Stay tuned!
Using clever set-ups, a mash-up of old school literature and modern pop-culture references, a multi-layered cacophony of scaffolding, pulleys, and platforms, and a grab-bag of seemingly "improvised" props and fabrics that take on inventive shapes, forms, and costumes, this blissfully buoyant, whimsical play, above all else, truly aims to stimulate theatergoers' active imaginations. Here, ropes become doorways, a tiny lightbulb becomes a fluttering fairy, mermaids sing vaudevillian showstoppers, and cats (which look remarkably like floor mops) can fly across the room with the greatest of ease (or, well, something close to it).
It also helps to know beforehand that hovering over the play is its overarching raison d'être: that ultimately this play will eventually establish the "birth" of Peter Pan. Armed with that knowledge, the audience is giddy with delight whenever details of "things to come" are slowly revealed piece-by-piece. Admittedly, I had a much more enjoyable time catching these hints in this production than I did with the touring production.
Though this all may seem like nothing more than a children's story on steroids and lots of happy pills, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is, in a way, a riotous reminder for that little kid stifled in all of us of the joy of magic and make-believe.
Even before the play begins, the audience observes an exposed, somewhat bare stage filled only with scattered items you would probably expect to see thrown about randomly backstage behind the curtain, which, under normal theater circumstances, are often shielded from the audience. Suddenly, a symphony of overlapping voices is heard as a troupe of smiling actors of various ages dressed in normal, current-day garb enter upstage.
Pretty soon, the so-called fourth wall is forever shattered as the actors make an audacious request directly to the audience: for us to really use our imaginations as they do their best to transport us into this wonderful world—where prone-to-monologue pirates are cartoonish buffoons with delusions of grandeur; where smart young ladies strive to be the rescuer, rather than be the rescued; where island natives have a strange attachment to pasta, and where a boy who longed for unbridled freedom, perpetual youth, and a name can later become a legend—all because he chose to help a friend. Therein lies the play's grandest hat trick of all: what starts out as stage full of random objects and random people, eventually morphs into a wonderland of musical and theatrical possibilities.
Of course, further selling this idea is the play's wickedly funny, extremely resourceful cast (many of whom even play multiple characters and, at times, act as available stage hands) whose over-the-top acting and wildly accentuated mannerisms are actually an asset rather than an annoying hinderance to the entire enterprise. Wait until you see how Black Stache deals with a rather, um, painful injury! Get a load of what happens when the "starstuff" is accidentally spilled into a grotto filled with fish (beautiful dance number, ladies)! And, gosh, wait until everyone meets the local natives of Rundoon!
This hardworking ensemble all deserve kudos for their performances—although, I must say, everyone looks like they're having way too much fun up there that I wonder if they consider this "work" (well, it is, though). Standouts include pirates Mahaffy and Barillas who hold their own against the super-hilarious scene-stealing McGrath; orphan sidekicks Tolson and Fletcher who provide lots of extra comic relief as a foil to their more surprisingly super-serious nameless pal; Abatermarco for his still-spry Mrs. Bumbrake; Gilmore for his turn as Aster, the seemingly lone sane voice in this sea of fun chaos; and McClinton as Molly, the lone female who proves she can totally take on all the boys if needed. Her portrait of Molly also solidifies her place as everyone's ideal BFF.
And, finally, as the nameless boy, who eventually chooses to name himself "Peter," Fenner—a frequent welcome presence in many SCR productions over the years—once again proves his acting mettle for playing vulnerable, adorkably awkward young men. Here now as the ultimate lost boy, Fenner lets loose his signature hurt-boy persona, but easily mixes in a newfound bravery befitting the role. Instantly endearing, you'll gladly cheer for his character's heroic momentum. (Oh, and an extra shout-out to the orphanage that housed the young man for apparently having a 24-Hour Fitness on the premises... holy abs-of-steel, Mr. Fenner!)
Running on wit, heart, imagination, and pure comic mayhem, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER captivates from start to finish. Cheeky jokes and sight gags aside, the play—particularly this SCR commission—presents a thrilling theater piece that's all about the execution of an already fun story. With so many plot tangents and characters vying for attention, director Manke manages to find some organization in the perceived chaos, without sacrificing the play's imbedded whimsical tendencies and outlandish humor (actually, I think he even enhanced them). The audience's proximity to these gifted, highly collaborative actors—who are all already spurning us to use our imagination—also helps in creating this pleasant communal bubble of shared laughter, making for an overall wonderful experience.
Because every actor (and, by extension, every character they embody) are fully committed to telling the story in the most enjoyable, most engaging way, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is the perfect example of how the lack of artifice or distracting, expensive visuals can actually make for a richer theatrical experience. If you missed the national touring production, your best bet is to see this Tony-winning show transformed into an even more rousing, lively production you have to experience. Go see this beguiling SCR play while you can!
Review also published on BroadwayWorld.com. Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR.
PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is a play by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson and features music by Wayne Barker. Performances of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER continue at South Coast Repertory through June 7, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.