It's been nearly three weeks since Hillary and I first saw Peter and the Starcatcher at New York Theatre Workshop, and we're still smiling nonstop about it. (Granted, it's only been a week since we saw it for the second time...after which we purchased tickets for a third and final viewing a month from now. But still.) There's really no way to skirt around what we thought of the show. Peter and the Starcatcher is one of the most inventive, creative, funny, whimsical, and touching pieces of theater we've ever had the opportunity to see. Script, staging, cast, everything. Hands down. No contest.
Based on the children's book "Peter and the Starcatchers" by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry, the show serves as a prequel to the story of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up, and explains the backstory of how Peter and his band of Lost Boys came to be and arrived in Neverland, via pirate ships, an island adventure, and a trunk of something called "starstuff". (In this story, Peter, played by Adam Chanler-Berat, is first known merely as "Boy".) In that way, I suppose you could compare it to Wicked (an addendum to "The Wizard of Oz"). But in the words of Chandler Bing, Peter could not BE more different from its glitzy, green counterpart. Where Wicked utilizes massive set pieces, stunning costumes, and a setup that is generally quite elaborate, Peter relies on its twelve-person cast, the small space of the intimate theater, and the imagination of the audience to stage its story. And it succeeds magically.
Peter is also not a musical. Rather, it's a play that features a limited number of songs. One of which transforms nearly the entire cast into mermaids. The entire cast, minus one, are men. I'll give you a second to imagine the hilarity that ensues.
Okay. The first and perhaps most dominating aspect of the show that totally blew us away was its STAGING! The theater at NYTW seats 200, so translate that to the size of the stage, and it's pretty tiny. Actual props and set pieces are fairly minimalist: rope, a yellow rubber glove, some red plastic bowls and flashlights, a ladder (used in one scene that Ben Brantley described perfectly), a few bras (see aforementioned mermaid song), and a multitude of kitchen utensils to decorate the proscenium. Instead, the cast becomes the set, acting in one scene and then folding into the background the next, either as a tree, a part of the ship, or as another character. For instance, actors pass a single rope among them and use it to create different shapes that form doorways, stairs, the railing on the deck of the ship, and waves. And when the ship "tilts" in the middle of a scene, everyone standing onstage leans one way and then the other to simulate the effect of the ship being tossed around in a storm.
It's incredibly creative, and in many ways is a glorified version of the make-believe games we all used to play in our living rooms. As an example, I'll use a scene that absolutely left me in wide-eyed wonder: Molly (portrayed by the amazing Celia Keenan-Bolger), a young but precocious girl traveling on a mission with her father, decides to explore the bowels of the ship she's on. A group of actors are lined up across the back of the stage, facing away from the audience to serve as a hallway, and a few make "popping" noises with their mouths to simulate the sound of being on a part of the ship that's submerged underwater. The curious Molly approaches several "doorknobs" (a hand, elbow, or arm jutting out here or there), pulls open the "door," and immediately finds herself in the middle of the action going on in that particular room as the "wall" of actors transforms into anything from pirates interrogating an unfortunate prisoner to a full-out men's choir in the middle of rehearsal. It's an amazing use of space that we'd assume can be attributed to the work of Steven Hoggett, who choreographed American Idiot and here is credited with "movement."
From my description so far, I hope our readers can gain some sense of what a true ensemble piece this is. (It can actually be found in the dictionary under that entry.) And not in the sense of a show with a particularly sizable supporting cast. Peter and the Starcatcher literally would. not. work. if every single cast member wasn't on the same page. But they are, and the entire show, transitions included, flows without delay in perfect rhythm.
The cast is, in a word, genius. Seriously. All three leads shine SO brightly, and the supporting cast is just as fantastic. As always, Mr. Chanler-Berat's on-stage emotions as "Boy" are absolutely and appropriately genuine and completely contagious. Ms. Keenan-Bolger (who I saw as Olive Ostrovsky in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee once upon a time, before I was aware of who she was and how cramazing she is) as Molly, the curious and determined girl who befriends Boy on their journey, is perfectly matched against him, as her presence and emotions are just as infectious. Without spoiling anything, their two characters share a few really sweet moments. And Christian Borle as the pirate Black Stache...oh man. I would honestly compare his performance, especially during a particularly lengthy scene in the second act, to Mark Rylance in La Bete, in that both men BECAME their characters. Mr. Borle knew the personality he wanted to bring inside and out, and subsequently had us nearly crying with laughter. After seeing the show for the first time and immediately purchasing the book from eBay, I was interested to note that Black Stache as originally written is not an extremely comedic character. Obviously Rick Elice (text) did a great deal of work to transform the book into a script, but the difference in characterizations made me appreciate Borle's work even more. As a slightly feminine pirate who does his best to be intimidating and macho, losing his head (and words) without his fellow shipmates to remind him, Borle was HILARIOUS and gives a performance that is not to be missed. In addition to the leads, it's truly impossible to single out just a few supporting cast members because they're all simply great - including Teddy Bergman as Fighting Prawn, the leader of the Mollusk tribe; Arnie Burton as Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly's nanny; and Carson Elrod as Prentiss, one of the Lost Boys.
The dialogue also measures up to the creative standards set by the rest of the show - fast-paced, witty, and drawing all the expected (and some unexpected) connections to the story of Peter Pan without being cliche or corny about it, or hitting you over the head with them. We couldn't stop laughing for so much of the show...but then a very poignant moment would come along, and it felt completely heartfelt and not forced at all.
During our second viewing of the show, I could sense a palpable turning point for the audience, somewhere in the middle of Mr. Borle's first big comedic monologue. In the midst of historical puns (did ya know that the antics of Napoleon and Attila the Hun can be explained by starstuff?), references to the "Cadillac Escalade of dilemmas," and a whole string of one-handed jokes, the audience (made up mostly of adults, although a few children were sprinkled here and there) recognized the wit and intelligence of what they were watching, but also realized that it was okay to laugh like a child at it.
Hence, the joyous feeling of remembering what it was like to be a child. The more we think about this show, the more we love it. The last few scenes really bring everything together and leave the story at a jumping-off point for Peter Pan...and yes, I teared up. Such timeless messages about remembering the people who alter our lives, and moving on to new things, and how friends become your family are always relevant when done in the beautiful way that Peter and the Starcatcher presents them.
Peter and the Starcatcher has extended the length of its all-too-short run twice and will now play its final performance on April 24. Because the show is commissioned by Disney Theatrical Productions, I can't imagine that NYTW will be the end of the road for it. All the same, this will not be the same show if it should appear in a larger and less intimate venue. For broke college students like ourselves, NYTW offers an incredible deal for $25 student tickets, bought in person at their box office.
In other words, this is not one to miss, dear readers! TTFN, and run to pick up your ticket for Peter and the Starcatcher.