NEW YORK – In the earlier workshop and Off Broadway presentations of Peter and the Starcatcher, Christian Borle originated the role of Black Stache, the nefarious pirate who would go on to lose a hand and acquire greater infamy as Captain Hook. At that time he was an established New York stage actor whose national profile had not yet been boosted by a lead role on NBC’s Smash. While the television series commitment initially indicated he would be unavailable to reprise his part in the play’s Broadway transfer, the producers must be relieved that the scheduling worked out, because Borle’s deliciously hammy, scenery-chewing turn is one of few elements to survive the move undamaged.
Though it sometimes comes at the expense of narrative clarity, there are still buckets of whimsy and inspired low-tech stagecraft in this adaptation by Jersey Boys co-writer Rick Elice of the popular children’s novel. The first in a series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, it concocts a fanciful backstory for the Peter Pan tale. The show is co-directed with a frantic mix of old-fashioned story-theater tricks and hipster humor by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers.
But in scaling up from a theater seating less than 200 to one with a capacity of around 1,000, the show’s larkish pantomime spirit has become strained. The cast – versatile and likable though they are – now have to work harder to keep the constant volley of silly jokes and winking contemporary anachronisms airborne, and the effort shows. Charm is a fragile commodity.
The musical Once, which also came to Broadway this season directly from New York Theatre Workshop downtown, negotiated the move with its idiosyncratic appeal intact, albeit with some inevitable loss of intimacy. That show is shaping up to be a hit. By contrast, the musical Lysistrata Jones had a scrappy insouciance that was fresh and effervescent in its site-specific Off Broadway staging, but it looked feeble under a brighter spotlight. The transfer was one of this season’s early casualties on Broadway.
Bolstered by wide readership of the bestselling novels, Peter might find more traction and draw young theatergoers, possibly benefiting from its Disney pedigree. The show was developed by Disney Theatrical, which serves here more in a licensing capacity than as a hands-on producer. However, like Timbers’ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson last season, which was a hit downtown and then struggled on Broadway, Peter suggests that producers need to think beyond a handful of good reviews while assessing transfer viability. Not every show is a natural fit for theatrical primetime.
What Peter does still offer is a captivating antidote to the theater-as-theme-park experience exemplified by Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. With minimal artifice beyond a length or two of rope, a playful bunch of actors, the wonderfully descriptive lighting of Jeff Croiter and a pair of percussionists, a treacherous storm at sea is whipped up. Likewise, a tropical island with enchanted mermaids swimming offshore in a golden lagoon is conjured using deliberately crude painted backcloths, clever costuming and a few crafty props. Working with resourceful designers Donyale Werle (sets) and Paloma Young (costumes), the creative team clearly had a ball tapping into a collective imagination that draws as much from stoner madness as from childhood.
With random references to Ayn Rand, Philip Glass and Kelis’ “Milkshake,” among other cultural esoterica, the humor comes out more or less 50-50 on the hit-and-miss ratio. But even when their jokes don’t quite land, the cast is easy to embrace. Adam Chanler-Berat is sweet and earnest as the lost boy who becomes Peter Pan, and Celia Keenan-Bolger is his plucky fellow adventurer Molly, whose task is to keep a precious cargo of magical stardust away from evil pirates. Arnie Burton scores steady laughs as Molly’s pert nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake. The 12-member ensemble is at its daffiest in a post-intermission mermaid ditty that draws on a distinctly British tradition of music-hall camp.
But the production’s ace is Borle, whose gift for physical comedy allows him to express malevolence, cunning, clumsiness and clownish mischief through a body and face seemingly made of rubber. His over-the-top antics veer at times toward self-indulgence, which he might want to keep in check, but the actor’s skills are undeniable. Blithely spouting malapropisms, his Black Stache is both a vile blackguard and an effete ditz. The character is such a scene-stealer that while this is primarily the story of how a nameless orphan gains an identity and finds everlasting childhood, it’s also an odd kind of romance, detailing how a hero and a villain got hitched for eternity.
Venue: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Christian Borle, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Adam Chanler-Berat, Teddy Bergman, Arnie Burton, Matt D’Amico, Kevin Del Aguila, Carson Elrod, Greg Hildreth, Rick Holmes, Isaiah Johnson, David Rossmer
Playwright: Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Directors: Roger Rees, Alex Timbers
Set designer: Donyale Werle
Costume designer: Paloma Young
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Music: Wayne Barker
Movement: Steven Hoggett
Music director: Marco Paguia
Presented by Nancy Nagel Gibbs, Greg Schaffert, Eva Price, Tom Smedes, Disney Theatrical Productions, Suzan & Ken Wirth/DeBartolo Miggs, Catherine Schreiber/Daveed Frazier & Mark Thompson, Jack Lane, Jane Dubin, Allan S. Gordon/Adam S. Gordon, Baer & Casserly/Nathan Vernon, Rich Affannato/Peter Stern, Brunish & Trinchero/Laura Little Productions, Larry Hirschhorn/Hummel & Greene, Jamie deRoy & Probo Prods./Radio Mouse, Hugh Hywell/Freedberg & Dale, New York Theater Workshop