Peter and the Starcatcher: Theater Review

It will never be to the J.M. Barrie classic what "Wicked" has become to "The Wizard of Oz," but its inventive storytelling and irreverent humor give this "Peter Pan" prequel a whimsical charm. 

The "Peter Pan" prequel, commissioned by Disney Theatrical Prods., was adapted by "Jersey Boys" co-writer Rick Elice from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's best-selling 2004 children's adventure book

NEW YORK -- Creative teams don't get much more heterogeneous than the one behind Peter and the Starcatcher. But in most respects, the motley crew bands together surprisingly well.

Commissioned by Disney Theatrical Prods., the show was adapted by Jersey Boys co-writer Rick Elice from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's best-selling 2004 children's adventure book, which traces the backstory of Peter Pan. Roger Rees and Alex Timbers share directing duties, bringing classical theater smarts and downtown hipster attitude, respectively. Helping to inject vigorous physicality into the staging is movement director Steven Hoggett, known for his ruggedly distinctive choreography on Black Watch and American Idiot.

While Disney is still mulling future plans, this play with music gets its first full-fledged outing at Off-Broadway's New York Theater Workshop, following a 2009 "Page to Stage" test-drive at La Jolla Playhouse.

As unlikely as the directorial pairing might seem, anyone familiar with their work will identify the input of both Rees and Timbers. The proudly low-tech story-theater technique owes much to Rees' association as an actor with The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. The sophomoric humor, smarty-pants metatheatricality and winking pop-cultural anachronisms are pure Timbers, recalling his recent work on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Elice has nudged the tone of the novel into a more comedic vein. This pays off in the rollicking first act on the high seas, but less so in Act 2 when the characters are shipwrecked on a tropical island populated by Anglo-phobic savages and freakish mermaids whose goofy bricolage costumes come courtesy of Paloma Young.

The action sags as the show veers into larkish caper mode, overindulging in shiver-me-Timbers jokiness when it could use more of Rees' steadying hand on the wheel. This trivializes the dramatic stakes and makes for an awkward return to traditional storybook enchantment when the foundations are laid in closing scenes for J.M. Barrie's familiar Peter Pan mythology.

But the missteps are forgivable when there's so much to enjoy in the unfettered verve of the staging, the infectious balance of broad kid-friendly gags with cheeky adult humor, and the exuberant energy of the cast.

Christian Borle is inspired as Black Stache, the pre-amputation pirate better known as Captain Hook. Less a dastardly villain than a malicious dandy with a sense of mischief that recalls Groucho Marx, he handles the script's rapid-fire wordplay and shameless double entendres with great panache. Following Borle's raw emotionality this season in Angels in America, the performance shows impressive range.

As the nameless orphan who becomes Peter Pan, acquiring flight skills, eternal boyhood and a fairy protectress, Adam Chanler-Berat (Next to Normal) balances pluck and vulnerability. The cast's sole female, Celia Keenan-Bolger (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), struts about like a pre-teen Judi Dench as Molly, the enterprising apprentice starcatcher tasked with keeping the powerful cosmic gold dust out of enemy hands.

The multitasking actors all show unflagging commitment to the quirky material, mostly avoiding preciousness. Notable contributions come from Arnie Burton as Molly's alliteration-addicted nanny, Betty Bumbrake; Matt D'Amico as nefarious seafarer Slank; and Carson Elrod and David Rossmer as Peter's fellow Lost Boys.

Accompanied by a pianist and percussionist, the show plays like a musical though its actual songs (by Wayne Barker) are limited to modest pirate, sailor and mermaid ditties. Design work is delightful, especially Jeff Croiter's vivid lighting and Donyale Werle's tangle of rigging for the shipboard scenes, framed by a kitschy gilded fake proscenium and dusty velvet show curtain.

But it's in the simple flourishes – conjuring a wild storm at sea with little more than a length of rope, or a giant crocodile with a pair of red headlights and strings of white flags for teeth – that the show taps into a magical tradition of children's theater. In an era of mainstream family entertainment in which audience imagination is too rarely a requirement, it's a breath of salty sea air.

Venue: New York Theater Workshop (Through April 3)
Cast: Adam Chanler-Berat, Christian Borle, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Teddy Bergman, Arnie Burton, Matt D'Amico, Kevin Del Aguila, Brandon Dirden, Carson Elrod, Greg Hildreth, Karl Kenzler, 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 New York Theater Workshop