For some reason, or for no reason at all, there’s a whole lot of Peter Pan going on in San Francisco at the moment. Custom Made Theatre Co. is presenting the West Coast premiere of Jeremy Bloom’s adaptation Peter/Wendy while SHN has brought the post-Broadway tour of Rick Elice’s Peter and the Starcatcher to the Curran Theatre. Starcatcher is actually a prequel to Peter Pan, detailing how the Lost Boys and the pirates got to Neverland in the first place. (As such, it has the odd problem of becoming less surprising as it goes along, because you know how things have to end up for everybody.)
The play is based on a 2006 novel of nearly the same name (only with plural Starcatchers), the first in a whole series of Peter Pan prequel children’s novels by Dave Barry (yes, that Dave Barry) and Ridley Pearson. The play debuted at La Jolla Playhouse in 2009 and made its way to Broadway in 2012 after a hit run off-Broadway.
There’s a lot that’s very clever about the flamboyantly staging by directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers. The ensemble cast of twelve tells the story as a group, shifting fluidly from role to role. There are a number of very cool effects, most notably a sequence in which the cast becomes a row of doors that our heroine tries, one by one, as the row of men quickly unfolds into a commotion of the activity found behind that door, then line up into the row of doors again as she retreats.
Did I say heroine? Ah, yes. Although Peter inevitably becomes increasingly important, the true star of the show is Molly Aster, a precocious young English girl, formidably portrayed by Megan Stern. The story is pretty convoluted, and we’re introduced to far too many characters and plot elements right away, so that it’s hard to keep track of it all. But the upshot is that Molly’s father, Lord Leonard Aster (a posh and upright Nathan Hosner), has to transport some precious cargo belonging to the queen to the remote kingdom of Rangoon, and he puts the trunk with the treasure on one ship and an identical trunk full of sand on the other. The fast ship, the Wasp, is commanded by a reliable old friend of Lord Aster’s (Ian Michael Scott) and the slow one, the Neverland, by an utter scoundrel (a sneering Jimonn Cole).
For some reason Aster decides it’s a good idea to leave his daughter on the Neverland while he travels on the Wasp, and the true treasure trunk winds up on the bad ship as well through a sinister switcheroo. Also aboard are a group of orphan boys kept like pigs and bound for an exciting life of slavery. Prentiss (Carl Howell) is the wannabe leader who can never quite figure out how to go about it; Ted (Edward Tournier) dreams only of food, glorious food; and then there’s the nameless Boy (Joey deBettencourt), a sullen outsider they sometimes call Mule. You’ll never guess what becomes of that guy. Okay, of course you will.
Mind you, Stern is the only woman in the cast, and it’s a bit eyebrow-raising that the only black guy in the cast plays the scummiest character. Benjamin Schrader plays Molly’s amusingly chatty and alliteration-prone nanny, who has her own little romance going on with a gruff but good-hearted sailor (Harter Clingman). And then of course there’s the up-and-coming and malapropism-prone villain Black Stache (John Sanders), with a painted-on mustache in the manner of Groucho Marx, and his helpful associate Smee (Luke Smith). What happens with them isn’t really going to be a big surprise either. Oh, and there’s a weird tribe of savage natives with broad Italian accents led by the goody Fighting Prawn (Lee Zarrett).
The stage is made to look ornate in an antique sort of way, with a red curtain sporting a huge gilded pineapple, but the overall palette of the production is very dark. Donyale Werle’s set is dominated by a cluttered mass of netting, and costumer Paloma Young dresses the cast in drab, muted colors, giving the show a scrappy, makeshift look.
Unfortunately the humor doesn’t fare so well. The part of flamboyant pirate captain Black Stache does most of the comedic heavy lifting, but the gags are so scattershot and Sanders’s performance so broadly hammy that it’s rare that a joke really lands. There’s one moment when something unbelievably painful and entirely expected happens, and he starts a long stream of “oh my god”s that get funnier the longer they go on—until they start devolving into Valley Girl “ohmigawd”s and internet-meme “ermahgerd”s that may get a hey-I-get-that-reference laugh but take us out of the moment entirely. No one believes anymore than anything’s actually happening to the character, if they ever did. There is one terrific fourth-wall gag that Sanders delivers well, though, offering the one good belly laugh of the night.
Some of the tomfoolery is fun, such as Molly and her father speaking in a code of dodo calls. There’s also the occasional musical number, such as when everybody gets turned into mermaids with found-object brassieres and sing an old-timey music-hall-style tune.
The latter part of the tale gets bogged down with explaining the origin of every little aspect of the Peter Pan mythos, so it ends much less interestingly than it begins. There are a lot of inventive moments and turns of phrase along the way, but after two and a half hours it feels like a long slog to get where we knew we were going all along. In the show as in the story, Stern’s Molly saves the day through sheer spunk and force of personality, but overall, the magic dust of this tale gets spread pretty thin.
Show #123 of 2013, attended November 6.