Alex Timbers Explores Peter Pan’s Origins

03/16/2011 4:00 AM |

Peter and the Starcatcher
Novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Adapted by Rick Elice
Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers

Midway through Peter and the Starcatcher its narrators ask the audience to picture a flying cat, noting that the characters don’t have to “because there they are, and there’s the cat, and that cat is definitely flying.” The tone in that brief moment—self-referential and goofy, but serious about the goofiness—is crucial to the appeal of New York Theatre Workshop‘s vastly entertaining Peter Pan prequel (through April 17), the rare origin story that does right by both its source and its audience.

Starcatcher, which sets up the famous events in Neverland, concerns the perilous shipment of a crate filled with a mythical substance sought by Black Stache, a pirate who will adopt a more familiar name after losing a hand. There are many complications (perhaps one or two too many), but the plot is secondary to the anarchic spirit and outsized personalities on display. With co-director Roger Rees, Alex Timbers (of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) again proves himself a master of reckless momentum, while Rick Elice’s gleeful script throws out alliterations, rhymes and wordplay by the fistful.

Starcatcher avoids the pitfalls that cause other franchise-tapping shows (Little Mermaid, Spider-Man) to collapse under their own weight. The few musical numbers establish a mood rather than bring down the house, and the cumulative tone is as light and flexible as the rules in a child’s game of pretend (a motif that extends to the props and proscenium). The sets are more suggestive than detailed—cast members step in to serve as doorframes and walls—lending the show an agility sorely lacking 
in more elaborate productions.

There’s a vaudevillian feel to the acting, particularly Christian Borle’s tireless performance as Stache, evoking Groucho Marx and silent melodrama’s frenzied pantomime. Hook has always been more flamboyant than menacing, but here his fresh stump is clearly flipping Peter off. Meanwhile Celia Keenan-Bolger’s spunky and determined Molly offsets the constant silliness, providing a welcome corrective to such narratives’ typically helpless heroines.

It’s telling that the show’s missteps—like a clumsy infomercial spoof—stem from creative excesses rather than shortcomings. All the clichés about “for the young and young at heart” apply—and as someone who spent three youthful years wearing nothing but a Peter Pan costume, the highest praise I can give is that I approve.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)