“Everything’s got a moral if only you can find it.” So said the Duchess to Alice on her journey through Wonderland, and who am I to contradict her? Just so, “Peter and the Starcatcher” has its fair allotment of moral lessons in right behavior – but that’s not why I would recommend it. I recommend it because it is laugh-out-loud fun.
I didn’t expect this. Not familiar with the play, though it had garnered plenty of Drama Desk and Tony wins, I feared I might be sitting through a long musical confection geared toward children’s entertainment appetites. “Peter and the Starcatcher” is, after all, Rick Elise’s stage version of the backstory to “Peter Pan.” But there’s a catch. This is the stage version of the book written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. THAT Dave Barry. The absurdly funny Pulitzer Prize winning columnist. We’re in safe hands.
Live Arts with its boatload of enthusiastic volunteers provides a safe harbor for this ambitious project. The story itself is dizzying enough. Two of Her Majesty’s ships (the “Wasp” and the “Neverland”) with two secretly exchanged trunks race for the island of Rundoon. Why they go, what they do when they get there, how Molly (the Starcatcher) and the Lost Boys fend off pirates, angry savages, the dastardly villain “Blackstache,” and the hungry crocodile, Mr. Grin – while remaining loyal to Queen Victoria (God Save Her!) – are grist for this crazymill of preposterous dangers at fast-forward speed. Throw in some big hairy guys dressed like mermaids riffing on the glittering 1930s era stage revue and you’ve got a perfect night.
Directed by Bree Luck, the ensemble work is seamless and the physical humor broad. And while the cast members seem to be having the time of their lives and are fully up to their tasks, it’s impossible not to have a few favorites. At the top of my list is Mark McLane as Blackstache, the preening, malaproposing pirate king. His do is derring and his buckle swashes, and while we’ve seen this type of character before, to those who love the Python, it never gets old. His interchanges with the slightly dim first mate, Smee, (Scott Dittman) are rich stuff indeed.
Young Molly Aster, the Starcatcher apprentice, is played alternately by Milla Cesaretti and Camden Luck. It would be lovely to know which of them I was admiring Friday night, but alas, that information was not given. Whichever one it was, she was poised and precise in a wonderfully studied, forgivably bossy English school girl way.
Molly has to have a governess, of course, and that would be the doting – and bearded – Mrs. Bumbrake played with exquisite aplomb by Aaron Richardson. The decorous courtship of the shy Bumbrake and the smitten but sadly flatulent ruffian, Alf (Pat Owen) comprises an ongoing under-plot of its own. Kudos as well to Amalia Oswald who, like several others, assumes multiple roles but shines as Bill Slank, dirty-dog captain of the Neverland who sets the story in motion.
And where would we be without a savage, homicidal chieftain named Fighting Prawn who hates the English and speaks Italian Cuisine? Nic McCarthy adroitly juggles this role with occasional appearances of the cold, sadistic English schoolmaster, Grempkin.
Along the way, the shenanigans, slapstick, and shameless word play give shape to a subtle theme of growing up – or not – and a few gentle musings on heroics. These moments slow the tempo of the play, but add a touch of depth and an opportunity to catch one’s breath.
Will Slusher’s set design is a wooden tangle of ladders and stairs, platforms, trap doors, and painted stars – and somehow it all turns in to ships and jungles and whatever the characters say it is. Costuming by Tricia Emlet, ideal for this vehicle, defines the era in shorthand terms but reaches confidently for the wildly playful when it comes to jungle savages and unwieldy mermaids.
Though “Peter and the Starcatcher” isn’t an actual musical, Wayne Barker’s compositions, played alternately by Austin Robey and Tara Scott tucked under a grassy awning, provide important effects, depth, and color.
While J.M. Barrie’s famous story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up is classified as children’s literature, it has its subtle tug on the hearts of adults. As the story purporting to explain how Peter Pan got that way, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is far more geared to an adult’s understanding, though children will enjoy the antics. Think of it as the Wizard of Oz in search of the Holy Grail meets Alice and Peter Pan in Wonderland.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
What: “Peter and the Starcatcher”
Where: Live Arts, 123 E. Water St., Charlottesville, Va
Call: (434) 977-4177 ext.123 or visit livearts.org
Playing through March 26