In ‘Starcatcher’ romp, goofy pirate lends a hand and Peter (Pan) learns no man is an isth-s-mus
Review: Peter and the Starcatcher, a Broadway in Chicago touring presentation, at Bank of America Theatre through April 13. ★★★★
By Nancy Malitz
Despite the exuberant ridiculousness of “Peter and the Starcatcher” — a show that channels Groucho Marx and Gilbert & Sullivan and Monty Python as it traces the backstory of the boy who became Peter Pan — you will turn misty at the end.
To be an adult at Broadway in Chicago’s Peter Pan “prequel” is to be pricked with the realization that, for just about everybody in the world except Peter, and maybe Equity actors, one’s youth relentlessly fades.
Much of the joy in “Starcatcher” (which playwright Rick Elice based on a recent book by humorist Dave Barry and suspense novelist Ridley Pearson) is how readily it helps us to re-invest in the childlike logic that perfectly plausible crocodile teeth can be fashioned from two rows of little white flags. And that croc eyes can be animated by waving flashlights behind big red bowls. And that a fitting name for a croc is Mr. Grin.
As for what one can do with a simple rope, you will appreciate the ingenuity of directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, who — along with their four Tony-Award winning colleagues in scenic and costume and sound and lighting design — are there to put you in touch with your lost boy or lost girl self.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is mostly a play – a wordy, pun-spackled and exhaustingly smart-aleck spectacle filled with brash malapropisms and anachronistic references to Nasty Crew and Michael Jackson’s moonwalk and TTFN (“ta-ta for now”) and other colloquialisms so plentiful you’ll find it hard to keep track. As with any Gilbert & Sullivan show from the Victorian era, the laughs may go by too fast, and the plot may seem too convoluted, for first-timers to truly get it all, which is probably why farce-lovers tend to be repeat fanatics.
But funny this play is, and it hangs on star turns of the only female in the cast of 12 — Megan Stern as Molly, the singularly spunky, “insufferably bright” adolescent daughter of Lord Aster, and John Sanders as the two-handed (for now) pirate nemesis Black Stache, whose goofball panache steals every single scene he’s in.
Molly’s father has been charged by the Queen to convey a trunk of secret “starstuff” by ship to the faraway kingdom of Rundoon. He puts Molly and her nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake, (Benjamin Schrader, a stitch in drag) on a second ship, the Neverland, as part of an elaborate decoy trunk scheme to protect the mystery “stuff.”
While onboard the Neverland, Molly discovers three orphans sold into bondage, including one with no name who hates adults so much he vows never to grow up, and a cat that suddenly starts to fly. The cat thing is worrisome for Molly. Could the magic “starstuff” be on the wrong ship?, she wonders, as she sets about to toughen up the boys.
Stern has an unyielding demeanor and a whopping voice that belies her petite size, and she makes of Molly a smart, relentless mastermind who keeps Black Stache guessing. (Disney has invested in this show, and there’s a potential movie in the offing, which should help the magic kingdom in its quest for heroines less wimpy and more worthy of the future’s formidable young females.)
John Sanders’ Black Stache is so-named for his flamboyant lip fringe, which is, like everything else about his personality, gleefully outsized. Stache is a giddy psychopath with a talent for malaprops and misfiring quotations that his sidekick Smee (the charming Luke Smith) is constantly correcting, but that would be “splitting rabbits.” (Smee: “Splitting hairs.”) I saw the show on Broadway when (Tony-winning) Christian Borle played Stache, and Sanders, who has done a lot of good work in Chicago theater over the years, made the pirate equally his own.
Sanders’ most sensational moment is really an extended scene which starts as Stache tries to bribe the boy who hates grown-ups by helping him select a name — Peter — and pressing him to give up the trunk that the “stuff” is supposedly in. (Peter, too, is played by an actor with Chicago credits — Joey deBettencourt — the generously earnest straight man in this scene.) A riot of mis-quotation follows by way of Stache’s attempt at persuasion — “Infamy! Calamity! Fraternity!”; “No man is an isth-s-mus.”
But Peter adamantly refuses to give up the trunk, and Stache reacts rashly, which is when the real fun starts — an epic fit of self-inflicted pain that is accompanied by only three words, over and over and over again. This madcap routine lasts just short of forever, which miraculously seems not nearly long enough. For a pirate who is, so to speak, stuck in a tough spot, Stache’s many moods and moves are unforgettable, and to cut right to it, therein lies the basis of his transformation into Captain Hook.
The essence of farce is timing, and movement director Steven Hoggett’s highly stylized, one could say intricately choreographed, scenes throughout this show amount to dances of quick-time surprise. Chicagoans may remember Hoggett’s name from his choreographic effort in a touring show of the National Theatre of Scotland which came through the Windy City twice — the elegiac “Black Watch,” which covered the harrowing history of an elite Scottish fighting force and was viscerally inventive in a completely different way.
The mutually reliant 12-member cast operates at a level of split-second timing that radiates fun, and it includes two other Chicago-based performers — Harter Clingman as Alf, the bear of a sailor who lights Mrs. Bumbrake’s fire, and Nathan Hosner as Molly’s father, Lord Aster. Father and daughter, in one of the show’s whimsical asides, have a killer exchange in the extinct language of the Dodo bird, it being a clever way to fend off spies.
Peter’s fellow orphans — ever-hungry Ted (Edward Tournier), who dreams of pork in Technicolor, and sweetly delusional Prentiss (Carl Howell), who keeps putting it out there that he’s in charge — function with deBettencourt like the tight-knit band within a band they are.
But they are also constantly busy with the others, becoming pirates, crewmates, rope-wielders, prop-meisters and lighting effects guys, not to mention human doors, walls and furniture when the need arises. You’ll give up on the intricacies of the plot before you give up on them.
The play includes several smart musical numbers by Wayne Barker, most notably a mermaid chorus line to open Act 2 that will put you in mind of Billis’ “Honey Bun” burlesque from “South Pacific.” However, the mermaids’ chesty getups, by the irrepressible costumer Paloma Young, are less influenced by coconuts and more by an arsenal of pointy pantry gadgets.
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreInChicago.com
- John Sanders on being Black Stache: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Other “Peter and the Starcatcher” tour dates: Check out Charlotte, Baltimore and Pittsburgh
Tags: Alex Timbers, Benjamin Schrader, Broadway in Chicago, Carl Howell, Dave Barry, Edward Tournier, Harter Clingman, Joey deBettencourt, John Sanders, Luke Smith, Megan Stern, Nathan Hosner, Peter and the Starcatcher, Rick Elice, Ridley Pearson, Roger Rees, Steven Hoggett, Wayne Barker