The new play Peter and the Starcatcher is a trip in so many ways. It's a literal trip, a loopy story about the pirate crews of two ships chasing each other for a misplaced treasure possibly aboard one of the vessels. It's trippy, with a plot centered on something that seems called star stuffthat seems to come from somebody's psychedelic dream and could be used for good or evil or just to make things weird. And it's a trip in slangy way, with over-the-top characters and a script that plays with everything from the English language to the audience.
It's a little like Monty Python in its wit and silliness,a little like Wicked in that it fabricates a backstory for an iconic one, and a lot like a piece of children's theater that went wildly awry. It's also big fun, if you give it the chance.
I say it that way because there's one more trip in Peter and the Starcatcher, the one that has to do with tripping, or missteps. Its percussion and keyboard backup, played by musicians in the balcony boxes, is too heavily amplified and drowns out too much of the key words and jokes in Rick Elice's fantastical and often enchanting script. Its direction by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers is filled with rich shtik, but also allows British accents of extreme degrees, from very little to hard-to-comprehend.
Peter and the Starcatcher is the story of how Peter Pan got to be Peter Pan, where the lost boys came from, and the settling, if that is the word, of Neverland. Elice based the script on the best-selling novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, which I never read but want to read now, just to see whether it's as zonky as the play Elice extracted from it.
An extended hit last year at New York Theatre Workshop, Peter and the Starcatcher opened Sunday night on Broadway, a Broadway show suitable for families. Adults will enjoy its complex theatricality (an enormous crocodile made from found objects, electrified touches of acting through movement choreographed by Steven Hoggett,sound design by Darron L West that puts us squarely in different places and situations). Kids will follow it for its bizarre and hammy characters and its constant sense of adventure.
The first act left me questioning just what the show was trying to accomplish; something seemed not quite there about it, like skit that starts off as a good idea but doesn't build. A few minutes after the second act began, with the cast of nasty pirates and others turned into a strange ensemble of fishy chorines, I was sold. After that, the pieces came together more and more, and everything made perfect sense:the outrageous overacting (Christian Borle in a fabulous turn as Black Stache, the chief pirate), the overdone characterizations (Arnie Burton as a nanny, Kevin Del Aguila as a mugging Smee), a burgeoning kid-sense of feminism (Celia Keenan-Bolger as Our Heroine). Adam Chanler-Berat plays the orphan aboard who never trusts grown-up— and who, in the end, will never grow up.
The cast of a dozen is charming as umpteen characters on both racing ships and, nasty natives on an island and the people they chase. (The king of the island, is Teddy Bergman, who perfects the sneer as a character trait.) If this plot sounds disjointed and strange, I just report on 'em, I don't make 'em up. In the end, I was glad someone did.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
Peter and the Starcatcher is at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 246 W. 47th St., New York.