Peter Pan, the Boy Who Never Grew Up, Flies Back to Broadway with the Lost Boys in Tow
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at email@example.com.
Peter and the Starcatcher
Brooks Atkinson Theater
256 W. 47th Street
New York, NY
Peter Pan is an historical phenomenon with his roots very deep into the real world of merry olde England. Scottish writer J.M. Barrie gave birth to Peter in London in 1902 after Barrie’s fourteen-year-old brother died. Barrie’s parents continued to treasure the memory of the boy at the age he was at death -- he would remain fourteen forever. So would Peter.
Peter Pan first appeared as part of Barrie’s 1902 novel, The Little White Bird. The publisher, thrilled with favorable reaction to Peter Pan, pulled out a dozen chapters and turned them into a second book, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, in 1906. The first Peter play debuted in London in 1911 and was a huge hit. A number of plays appeared after that all over the world. It was the one-two punch of TV and Walt Disney that made Peter a lasting legend, though. NBC aired a Broadway musical of the Pan story in 1954, starring Mary Martin as Peter and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook. The preceding year, Disney released Peter Pan, its lush animated film with Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily and her Indians (that segment hasn't aged too well), the pirates, Hook, Smee, the crocodile and all the denizens of Neverland. Both the TV play and the Disney film were extremely successful.
There have been many Pan stories and films since then. Dustin Hoffman played the eponymous captain in Hook in 1991. The first live-action movie based on Barrie's original play debuted in 2003. Syfy updated the Peter legend in a 2011 mini-series, casting Peter as the leader of a young London street gang at the turn of the century that winds up in Neverland. For years, actress/gymnast Cathy Rigby has starred as Peter in national tours (the play is at the Madison Square Garden Theater each Christmas season and always does well).
And now Rick Elice has written Peter and the Starcatcher, based on a novel of the same name by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry. The play is a prequel to the Peter Pan story. It explains how Peter met the people who turned up later in all of his tales. It is a mystery, an adventure and a thriller full of fairies, lost boys, surly crocodiles with bulging red eyes, teenage girls in love, rolling ships, pirates, and the man who would become Captain Hook.
It is a very unusual piece of theater. There is little to the set, sometimes serving as a pirate ship and sometimes as Neverland. Peter is one of the lost boys, orphans, who work as sailors on the ship Neverland. They sail with the Queen’s ship Wasp to a faraway island. Each ship carries a mysterious cargo that everyone is determined to protect or steal.
The actors, who are very funny, create the story more than they read their lines. There are about a dozen actors who play nearly one hundred parts in relating the adventure, making you see the story in your head rather than on the stage. They're all gifted in making the drama come to life in vivid color. The men and women on stage are a well-oiled theatrical machine.
The first part of act one is a bit slow, but after about a half-hour Molly, the mercurial girl in the play, explains that she is a star catcher, someone who gathers up pieces of stars that explode in the sky and harnesses their magic power to do good. From that moment on, and especially in the second act, Peter and the Starcatcher catches fire and carries the audience to a rousing finale in which the foundation of the Peter Pan legend is built.
The show, which could be more streamlined, has a magical feel to it. It is a play and a story, but also a bridge back in time for all of us to childhood and the certain realization that at any moment of any late evening, Peter might fly through our bedroom windows.
The star of the play is the wondrously talented Christian Borle as the pirate king, Black Stache (he is one of the stars of the NBC series Smash). He dances and prances his way around the stage, leading his chorus of scraggly, bounding pirates in song. Celia Keenan Bolger is Molly, the mature teenaged girl who helps to protect the treasure, catch pieces of stars and, late in the play, sees the magic in Peter Pan. From that moment on, Peter and the Starcatcher catches fire and just sizzles. Other fine performances are from Arnie Burton as Mrs. Brumbrake, Rick Holmes as Lord Aster, and Isaiah Johnson as Captain Scott. Alex Timber and Roger Rees add a deft touch of theatrical piracy in their fast pace and absorbing direction of the play. You can’t imagine them making the play move faster, but they do. They're a pair of magicians.
At the end of the play, we find out what makes Peter Pan fly, and how he has flown about the world for over a hundred years. It's a jolly good show.
Psychiatrists could write books on Pan's popularity, but the explanation is simple: in the end, everyone would like to stay fourteen forever. It's a fantastic age. You're old enough to enjoy everything in the world, but not old enough to be given any responsibility. Peter Pan never grows up. Even so, he's a leader -- the cool kid -- and we all want to be cool. He's got a great life, and it never ends.
Unfortunately, this marvelous play does end, but that's okay -- in the real world, all good things must pass!
PRODUCTION. Producers: Nancy Nagel Gibbs, Eva Price, Disney Theatrical Productions, others. Sets: Donyale Werle; Costumes: Paloma Young; Lighting: Jeff Croiter; Sound: Darron West.
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