NYTIMES REVIEW: Effortless Flights of Fancy – PETER

BEN BRANTLEY | April 15, 2012

They’re surfing the clouds at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, where “Peter and the Starcatcher” opened on Sunday night. And even inveterate fearers of flying are likely to find themselves following the folks onstage into altitudes where eagles get nosebleeds.

“So what’s new about that?” you may ask. These days, airborne actors on Broadway are a dime a dozen. (O.K., more like $1,500 a dozen.) Mary Poppins, the teenage witches in “Wicked,” that spider guy — they’re all hanging out in midair in the name of family entertainment.

But let’s be honest. Don’t all these folks look a little uneasy as they glide and jerk through the air via technology that no matter how up-to-date feels clunky and unreliable?

The extravagantly resourceful ensemble members of “Peter and the Starcatcher” have almost nothing in the way of modern machinery to support their sky-scraping journeys. On the contrary, there’s little here that couldn’t be found in a theater 150 years ago. What they do have is some ordinary rope, a couple of ladders, a few household appliances, two toy boats and, most important, one another. And they have you, dear theatergoer, because in this ecstatic production you’re as important a part of this process as they are.

Adapted by Rick Elice from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s 2004 children’s novel, this play tells the story of how a nameless, angst-ridden orphan became the immortal Peter Pan. As staged with unending inventiveness by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers (with movement direction by Steven Hoggett and music by Wayne Barker), the production is also an enchanted anatomy of the primal human urge to defy gravity.

What’s more, it reminds us that we always have the tools within us to achieve that objective, if we know how to locate them. Though “Peter and the Starcatcher” sometimes speaks in 21st-century locutions, its theater craft would be familiar to audiences from the early 20th century, when James M. Barrie invented the character of Peter Pan.

The Brooks Atkinson proscenium has been tricked up to suggest a Victorian music hall. (Donyale Werle is the set designer.) And much of what happens there would not have been out of place, at least spiritually, in the fairy-tale Christmas pantomimes that delighted children then.

Think of it, if you will, as Steampunk theater. (You might recall that Mr. Timbers, one of this play’s directors, was responsible for the steampunk-emo musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”) Like recent movies like “Hugo” and “The Artist,” “Peter” is in love with the simpler, and perhaps fuller, magic once wrought by its artistic ancestors.

Not that there’s anything archaic or distant about the enveloping energy that emanates from the stage. “Peter” is all about storytelling as a lively (and live) art, and the energized complicity that’s forged between the teller and the listener.

The story simultaneously being told and celebrated is as elaborate, simple, cozy and scary as the best bedtime stories are. Its elements include an ocean voyage, a shipwreck, a cargo of something called stardust, a blissful Edwardian chorus line of singing mermaids and three orphans (sold to a dastardly seaman for sinister purposes) who have never seen the light of day before. The unhappiest of these lads doesn’t even have a name to call his own.

Portrayed with glorious adolescent bereftness by Adam Chanler-Berat (“Next to Normal”), the 13-year-old Boy, as he is known, isn’t defined by much more than his distrust and resentment of grown-ups. But on board the S.S. Neverland the precocious young Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger, fabulous), the well-traveled daughter of an adventurous nobleman, spots a glimmer in Boy’s eyes that promises something extraordinary.

I suppose you could say that “Peter” is a coming-of-age tale about how Boy comes into his extraordinariness. But it’s equally about our willingness, with the help of some highly skilled guides, to accept the extraordinary, to will ourselves into believing that what the actors tell us is happening is really happening.

Because remember, there’s not that much in the way of scenery up there, especially in the first act. (What there is, for the record, is choice, thanks to Ms. Werle, Paloma Young’s costumes and Jeff Croiter’s lighting.) It’s the cast that becomes not only whatever individual characters are called for but also the settings through which they move: two different boats (and their mysterious inner compartments), an itinerant jungle and, most spectacularly, a heaving ocean that splits and devours the Neverland, and makes James Cameron’s “Titanic” (even in 3-D) look strictly two-dimensional.

None of this could be achieved if the actors didn’t have a level of synchronicity and reciprocal trust that you associate with master ballet troupes. As the cast members take turns delivering the narrative, the others instantly assume the myriad shapes and guises being described. It’s the most exhilarating example of locomotive storytelling on Broadway since the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” visited three decades ago, with a cast that included a young actor named Roger Rees.

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A certain sense of selflessness is required in such ensembles. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no room for the occasional shameless star turn. For instance, that tall blond guy who’s been blending into in the background during the first several scenes, suddenly steps out with a swash and a buckle (and painted-on facial hair) to become the most villainous, effete and gracefully clumsy of pirates, Black Stache.

Christian Borle (newly famous for the television series “Smash”) is as hammy, plummy and delicious as a Christmas dinner from Charles Dickens. And how he turns three words (“oh my God”) into a show-stopping aria is something you must experience for yourself. But there’s not one cast member who doesn’t have a moment of starry silliness, transforming low humor into high comedy.

And yes, the humor is sub-adolescent, with the sort of groaning puns and flatulence jokes that schoolboys have always found irresistible. But there’s infectious art in how these cast members convey the primal joy we take in such idiocy. And throughout this production they’re sounding chords within us that we don’t even know are there: our hunger for certain kinds of fables and types of heroes and villains, and our wonder that a flying orphan invented more than a century ago continues to loom so large in our imaginations.

As for the flying that might be expected from a Peter Pan story, oh, it starts early and involves a cat that looks like something pulled out of the laundry hamper. “We ask you now to imagine a grown cat in flight,” says one ensemble member, while others add, sequentially:

“Of course the boys don’t have to imagine.”

“Because they are there.”

“And there’s the cat, and the cat is definitely flying.”

Why of course it is. And really, no such annotations are necessary. Because by then we’re there too, and, yes, we’re definitely flying.

Peter and the Starcatcher

By Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson; directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers; music by Wayne Barker; movement by Steven Hoggett; sets by Donyale Werle; costumes by Paloma Young; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by Darron L West; music direction by Marco Paguia; technical supervisor, David Benken; production supervisor, Clifford Schwartz; general manager, 321 Theatrical Management. Presented by Nancy Nagel Gibbs, Greg Schaffert, Eva Price, Tom Smedes, Disney Theatrical Productions, Suzan and Ken Wirth/DeBartolo Miggs, Catherine Schreiber/Daveed Frazier and Mark Thompson, Jack Lane, Jane Dubin, Allan S. Gordon/Adam S. Gordon, Baer and Casserly/Nathan Vernon, Rich Affannato/Peter Stern, Brunish and Trinchero/ Laura Little Productions, Larry Hirschhorn/Hummel and Green, Jamie deRoy and Probo Prods./Radio Mouse Entertainment, Hugh Hysell/Freedberg and Dale, and the New York Theater Workshop . At the Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47th Street, Manhattan; (800) 745-3000, ticketmaster.com. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.

WITH: Christian Borle (Black Stache), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Molly), Adam Chanler-Berat (Boy), Teddy Bergman (Fighting Prawn), Arnie Burton (Mrs. Bumbrake), Matt D’Amico (Slank/Hawking Clam), Kevin Del Aguila (Smee), Carson Elrod (Prentiss), Greg Hildreth (Alf), Rick Holmes (Lord Aster), Isaiah Johnson (Captain Scott) and David Rossmer (Ted).

Source: New York Times

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