A hundred and eight years after the boy who wouldn’t grow up first appeared onstage, the play “Peter and the Starcatcher,” the story of how Peter Pan came to be the figure we know today, earned 9 Tony nominations yesterday – and no one was more excited than me.
By a quirk of timing, I’d gone this past weekend to New York to do a mini-Broadway tour, part of which included heading to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre to check out the “Peter” production. I was excited, having read the books by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson on which the play is based. (The first book, titled “Peter and the Starcatchers,” was the source of most of the play’s story.) The books, by the way, are great – there are currently four, a trilogy that takes place before the events of “Peter Pan” and then a book afterwards that involves a girl named Wendy. Barry and Pearson’s series is written for kids but could be enjoyed by anyone, and their increasingly inventive explanations for why Peter can fly, how he met his famous pirate nemesis, and how Tinkerbell came to be at his side, among others, keep you glued to the page.
So I had an idea of what I was about to see when I went to see the play, but even if you don’t, the story has an accessible hook. It’s Peter Pan before “Peter Pan.” For a Broadway where “Wicked” is still running, this is pretty easy to grasp.
In the show, a ship is about to leave from London for the mysterious land of Rundoon. Aboard is a girl named Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), who has been trusted by her father with a very special mission, and three orphan boys (Adam Chanler-Berat, Carson Elrod, and David Rossmer), who are to be sold as slaves to Rundoon’s king. However, a ship commanded by the villainous pirate Black Stache (Christian Borle) is in hot pursuit, because Black Stache believes there’s treasure aboard the other ship.
Learn that a naval battle is involved in the play, and you may be thinking the show’s budget went prohibitively high. But the show’s set is deceptively spare. Enough ropes and rigging hang down to give the appearance of being on a ship, and there are a few trunks, chairs and other small props, but other than that, the stage is practically empty, and changes in scenery are accomplished by the entire 12-person ensemble. When a nanny and a sailor are crouched in a tiny cabin, the room is represented by two other cast members holding a length of rope in the shape of a square around them.
My personal favorite: when Molly the intrepid young girl is exploring a hallway lined with doors, her fellow cast members stood with their backs to her. When she “opened” a door, she’d take hold of one of them and swing them out, and suddenly every other cast member would leap in front of her to act out what was happening in the room. When she “closed” the door, everyone would jump, with split-second timing, back into their spots as “doors,” suddenly eerily silent.
Every show probably bills itself as fun for all ages, but this one really was. There are enough goofy moments to keep kids giggling, but the pop culture references will get chuckles from the adults, as well as a few fourth-wall-breaking moments, as when the pirate Black Stache is interrogating a stubborn prisoner. “People are paying for nannies and parking!” Black Stache chastised when the prisoner continued to delay.
The entire cast was fantastic – and no player had too big a part to hold move scenery during the show – but special mentions have to go to a few cast members, including Chanler-Berat, who portrayed the mysterious Boy and was by turns petulant and endearing at the beginning of the show before completely winning you over. Keenan-Bolger as the headstrong Molly excelled at portraying a stiff British young girl who had to be melted by degrees. And Borle as Black Stache, who’s currently starring on the NBC show “Smash,” made my stomach hurt from laughing so hard. Rattling off a mile-a-minute patter, he chews on the scenery like he hasn’t eaten for days and, especially in his early scenes, flings himself off trunks and into other cast members in deliriously silly slapstick routines.
Oh, and there’s a great musical number at the beginning of act 2 that comes with a surprise – but I won’t spoil it.
Molly Driscoll is a Monitor contributor.