Theater Review: “Peter and the Starcatcher” at the Kennedy Center

The dazzling, five-time Tony Award-winning “Peter Pan” prequel stops in Washington.

By: Jane Horwitz

Hip-hip hooray for Peter and the Starcatcher, which has dropped anchor for all too brief a stay at the Kennedy Center, through February 16. While the just-opened Violet at Ford’s Theatre makes an audience work, this show lets them sit back and grin. It careens off the stage as pure joy and a celebration of theater magic.

This national touring company of the much-honored Broadway show (with off-Broadway origins) exhibits no signs of fatigue. The cast and the physical production glow with energy and imagination. The actors make it look easy, thought it couldn’t possibly be.

Peter and the Starcatcher is not a musical, but rather a play with music. Its rich, often rhymed dialogue bristles with droll anachronistic puns. A pair of live musicians (music director and keyboardist Andy Grobengieser and percussionist Jeremy Lowe) perch on high platforms at either side of the stage to play the score, accompany the few songs, and provide background music and sound effects. (One must also point out the delicious frat-boys-in-drag kick line of mermaids that opens act two. Just any old fish in the sea, they were, until an encounter with magical “star stuff” transformed them.)

The hit musical Wicked conceives with high-tech glitz how an unhappy, angry girlhood turned a nice witch into the Wicked Witch of the West. Peter and the Starcatcher imagines, in a far less glittery but much more theatrical way, how an orphan boy who doesn’t even know his own name becomes Peter Pan—and how Tinkerbell becomes Tinkerbell, and how Captain Hook becomes Captain Hook, and how the killer croc swallows his tick-tock, and how a South Seas island becomes Never Land.

Based on the first novel in the Peter and the Starcatchers [sic] series for younger readers by humorist Dave Barry and suspense writer Ridley Pearson, the show, like the novel, is a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The book was adapted by Rick Elice (Jersey Boys) with music by Wayne Barker. It began as a workshop with Elice and the show’s co-director Roger Rees, and it just grew. (Alex Timbers of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson fame shares directing honors with Rees.)

Twelve protean actors take on multiple roles in this saga—kid-friendly down to the age of about ten. It begins as a brainy English girl named Molly (the excellent Megan Stern) and her father, Lord Aster (Nathan Hosner), set sail for the exotic port of Rundoon with mysterious and precious cargo in a trunk. Her father insists that Molly travel on a separate and slower ship, the Never Land, for her safety. Her nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake (a funny Benjamin Schrader), accompanies her. Lord Aster and his trunk, meanwhile, will sail on a faster frigate, the Wasp.

But then the Wasp gets commandeered by pirates, led by the preening, unstable, shiny-moustachioed, and utterly hilarious Black Stache, rendered with comedic genius by John Sanders. (His spoken aria in Act Two is one for the record books.) On Molly’s ship, the nasty Captain Slank (Jimonn Cole) holds a trio of orphan boys prisoners below, on their way to slavery in Rundoon. They are Prentiss (Carl Howell), Ted (Edward Tournier), and the sullen and nameless Boy (heartbreaking and heroic Joey deBettencourt). Molly, a born iconoclast and natural leader, befriends the boys. She also discovers that Slank has made a switcheroo, and that her father’s trunk is on the Never Land. Exposure to its contents turns out to have magical consequences as factions fight over it.

The accoutrements for Peter and the Starcatcher are determinedly low-tech—actors acting, for example. When it’s time to meet the fearsome crocodile, cast members hold up two big red plastic saucers with lights glowing inside them for eyes, and a double stream of white banners (the sort you’d see at a car dealership) chomping up and down for teeth. The effect proves ingenious and cartoonishly scary.

Not that the stage is sparsely decorated. The whole production (with Tony-winning set design by Donyale Werle) is framed by an ornate Victorian proscenium. Huge, diaphanous bolts of cloth mask the wings at each side of the stage, representing, with shifts in Jeff Croiter’s spectacular and specific lighting, all manner of locales. Open umbrellas become a tropical jungle; green oval disks become the shields of an island tribe. At the rear stands a wall of planks that can imply anything from a creaky ship to a ramshackle orphanage.

There is nothing more rewarding for an avid playgoer than watching good actors conjure magic from the bare essentials. In this case, both the bare essentials and the actors are pure gold.

Peter and the Starcatcher is at the Kennedy Center through February 16. Running time is about two and a half hours, including one intermission. Tickets ($55 to $135) are available via the Kennedy Center’s website.