March 12, 2011

How Magical is "Peter and the Starcatcher"?

Monday is traditionally a dark night in the theater so performances are rare, which probably explains why the New York Theatre Workshop was filled with theater folks—press and otherwise—when my theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to see Peter and the Starcatcher, the new Disney kind-of-musical. 

I say “kind-of” because this isn’t your typical Disney show.  It’s not big, not brassy and there are few Technicolor costumes.  Instead, Peter and the Starcatcher is a self-conscious attempt to show that Disney can be hip, a little dark and edgy. But that mission is only partially successful. 

The show is a prequel to the Peter Pan story and has been adapted from the popular children’s book series created by the humorist Dave Barry and the mystery writer Ridley Pearson. Their books explain how Peter’s nemesis Captain Hook lost his hand, why the crocodile has a loud-ticking clock inside and, of course, how Peter and his lost boys got to the mystical island of Neverland and why they will never leave or grow up. 

Barry and Pearson added some other characters too, most notably a 14 year-old girl named Molly, who travels around the world with her father who has been commissioned by Queen Victoria to gather up magical stardust before it can fall into evil hands. When you add it all up that’s 
a lot of plot. 

Rick Elice, who co-authored the books for Jersey Boys and The Addams Family, tries to cram in as much of it as he can but the storytelling gets confusing.  Besides, Elice is clearly more interested in cracking anachronistic jokes about beer bongs and Philip Glass operas or tucking 
in up-to-the-minute sly references about the woes of Spider-Man.

Wayne Baker, whose previous biggest credit seems to have been working with Dame Edna, handles the music, which draws its inspiration from the English music hall. I don’t remember being annoyed by the songs but, alas, I don’t remember anything else about them either.

Still, the show is far from a shipwreck. It’s co-directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and each brings his distinctive gifts to the party. 

Rees has done scores of things over the years, including his new gig as Gomez in The Addams Family, but he is still best remembered as the plucky hero in the 1981 production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby, even though he fails to mention it in the Playbill bio for this new show. And Nicholas Nickelby is clearly the inspiration for Peter & The Starcatcher’s whimsical story-theater techniques in which the actors both narrate and perform the story.

Meanwhile, Timbers, who made his bones with last season’s irreverent Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, injects a similarly snarky sensibility into the proceedings. The antics he sets in motion are lively even if you don’t know what the hell is happening half the time.

The cast is game and seemingly up for anything.  Many of the actors play multiple parts, and both genders. They sing. They perform Steven Hoggett’s inventive but rigorous choreography (click here to read a piece about how he put it together).They help change the scenery; and sometimes even are the scenery.

But the standout is Christian Borle as the pirate Black Stache (the Anakin Skywalker to the Darth Vader of Captain Hook). Borle plays Black Stache as though he were the love child of Groucho Marx (complete with the phony moustache and rim shot timing) and the ostentatiously swishy Captain Jack Sparrow from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.  It’s 
a deliciously over-the-top performance and, following his sensational performance as Prior Walter in Angels in America, makes this as a breakout year for Borle.

The non-animate set and props are purposefully low-tech (lots of ladders, ropes and water buckets) but this is a Disney show and set designer Donyale Werle gets to show off with a witty curio-filled proscenium that transforms the NYTW stage into a period-appropriate frame for the action. Paloma Young’s costumes are equally delightful and Jeff Croiter’s lighting and Darron L. West’s sound design hit their marks too.

So you see, there’s a lot of good stuff here. Its producers clearly envision Peter and the Starcatcher (which is only playing at NYTW through April 3 [update: it's been extended through April 17] but clearly hopes to eventually land on Broadway) as a show that has something for everyone. But the problem with that approach is that it often ends up being not enough for anyone.

Sure, Monday night’s audience seemed delighted by the show. The actor sitting behind me whooped it up big at every joke. And The New York Times, Associated Press and Backstage have now given it rave reviews (click here to see what they and others say on StageGrade). But these are all insiders, people who see lots of shows and are therefore extra grateful when just about anything different comes along.  But what about the average ticket buyer?

Kids, the presumed target audience (click here to see a cool interactive study guide the Disney folks have set up for students and teachers), are likely to be baffled by much of what they see. And I’m not sure how many older folks will want to shell out money to see a kid’s adventure tale.

That leaves the hipsters in their 20s and 30s. The producers are probably hoping that word-of-mouth about what Timbers has done will draw them in.  But, as Bill noted over a post-show dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant, they didn’t turn out in sufficient numbers to keep Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson open.


doug marino said...

If you look at BBAJ's brief run on Broadway as an investment (i assume it did not recoup) in its future stock value in national, international, regional and high school productions - i bet even 2 weeks on Broadway took this show further than if it never had a run at all. (i liked, not loved, the show off Broadway too). Maybe the same thing will happen with PATS?

jan@broadwayandme said...

That's a really interesting observation, Doug. I don't know how well the "political incorrectness" of BBAJ would fare with high school drama departments but I think having the show on Broadway might indeed raise its profile with colleges and community theater groups. On the other hand, I don't think the Disney folks are yet done with "Peter and the Startcatchers." Peter Pan is an awfully valuable franchise for them and I can't imagine their not wanting to cash in on it in the big way that a long Broadway run would allow.