Peter and the Starcatcher: Theater Review

Jenny Anderson
A multiple Tony winner on Broadway, this fanciful feint at a "Peter Pan" prequel proves more inventive than inspired. 

The national tour of Broadway's Peter Pan prequel arrives at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown L.A.

The steely durability of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan mythology gets mightily flexed in this willfully imaginative fantasia of Victorian music hall tropes, modern mash-up gestures, Story Theater techniques and period nancy humor. Shameless puns, alliteration, spoonerisms and daft nonsequiturs abound.

Molly (Megan Stern), a preternaturally precocious pre-adolescent, accompanies her father Lord Aster (Nathan Hosner) on a secret mission for the Queen, conveying a trunk full of starstuff, potentially catastrophic should it fall into the possession of evil hands, of whom there are no shortage during their voyage to the Kingdom of Rundoon. The ever resourceful Molly endeavors to save a trio of misbegotten orphans bound to be slaves and snake meat, one of whom, the charismatic Boy (Joey deBettencourt), so downtrodden as to lack even a proper name. Molly finds herself seized first by the treacherous Captain Slank (Jimonn Cole) of the ship Neverland, who is then himself set upon by the pirate band commanded by the posturing menace Black Stache (John Sanders), all of them after the elusive riches in the wayward trunk. Eventually everyone ends up shipwrecked on an island inhabited by the tribe of Mollusks, led by the fearsome Anglophobe, Fighting Prawn (Lee Zarrett).

The whimsy splashes about without abandon whether on the high seas or on land. One can readily infer that the concept of the production preceded the writing of its text: this salmagundi of a pirates’ feast proceeds almost entirely from the driving desire to mix as many theatrical elements and effects into its singular stew. The means may adopt a patina of minimalism (mostly artfully deployed props), but the comic goal is a relentless maximalism, throwing every gag, stratagem and quip at the wall in sufficient quantity to ensure that at least some of them stick. It can be twee, arch or naughty, reveling in outlandish anachronisms and pop culture references from the past century plus, inhabiting that inconceivable Neverland that exists in the fantastic intersection of Gilbert & Sullivan on the one (ahem) hand and Abbott & Costello on the other.

If, in the first act, the wit varies so vertiginously that it flirts with the tiresome, then in a deliriously delicious opening musical number of the second act, the entire cast sings and dances in delectable drag as fish mutated by the pollution of the ocean with starstuff into cross-dressing mermaids. This sort of ineffable sublimity illustrates the show’s highest aspirations, only intermittently achieved, and such a showstopper that any multitude of groaners may be forgiven. The jumble grows more gleeful and merry throughout the island hijinks, and ultimately the climactic invocation of the origin story behind the Barrie play settles into comfortably clever sentiment rather than the deeply touching accomplishment of the original master himself.

For better or worse, the production itself often seems as much a burlesque on the seminal early 1980s David Edgar Nicholas Nickleby in which co-director Roger Rees starred than a set of riffs on Pan themes. The stagecraft, while unimpeachably smart, seamless and fluid, offers more of an encyclopedic treasure chest of recycled theatrical allusiveness than inspired triggers for the audience’s imagination.

The cast of 12, per the program, essays over 100 characters, and despite the encouragement to chew the scenery (particularly the proto-Hook of Sanders, more Bert Lahr than Cyril Ritchard), all of them are impeccably spot-on from each frenzied moment to the next. The pertly boisterous Stern in particular makes her irreverent flouting of ingenue conventions rousing, and among all the accomplished out-of-towners it’s encouraging to see fine local stage talent like Edward Tournier among their number. 

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, downtown Los Angeles (runs through Jan. 12)

Cast: Megan Stern, Joey deBettencourt, John Sanders, Harter Clingman, Jimonn Cole, Nathan Hosner, Carl Howell, Benjamin Schrader, Luke Smith, Ian Michael Stuart, Edward Tournier, Lee Zarrett

Directors: Roger Rees & Alex Timbers

Playwright: Rick Elice, based upon the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

Music: Wayne Barker

Movement: Steven Hoggett

Set designer: Donyale Werle

Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter

Costume designer: Paloma Young

Sound designer: Darron L. West

Music Supervisor: Marco Paguia

Music Director: Andy Grobengieser