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REVIEW: Charleston Stage's 'Peter and the Starcatcher' is cheeky, cheerful, and utterly charming

Arrested development

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'Peter & the Starcatcher' is based on author Dave Barry and children's writer Ridley Pearson's comedic novel. - PROVIDED
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  • 'Peter & the Starcatcher' is based on author Dave Barry and children's writer Ridley Pearson's comedic novel.

Anyone reared on Disney dust knows well the telltale trait of the persistently puerile Peter Pan (who, incidentally, is the impish brainchild of Scottish scribe J.M. Barrie). For whatever reason, Peter can’t or won’t get on with it and grow up. I’m sure the man-boys out there would concur that Peter makes a valid point. Likewise, we Wendy wannabes — who may have dallied briefly in Neverland before accepting the reality of coming of age — could use a night off from all that bothersome, highly overrated maturity.

As luck would have it, Charleston Stage has a cure for all that ages you. Simply zip on over to the Dock Street Theatre to catch Peter and the Starcatcher, the cheeky, cheerful, and utterly charming reprieve from all those groan-worthy grown-up ways.

The Tony Award-winning play by Rick Elice, which is based on the novel by comedic author Dave Barry and children’s writer Ridley Pearson, plays out in an inspired and family-friendly mix of adult urbanity and winsome kid-speak that is both timely and timeless.

Peter and the Starcatcher is built to capture the heart of both the very young and the very jaded. (Case in point: I attended the show with my toddler daughter and arts-world husband in tow, and we were all equally captivated). G-rated guru Julian Wiles mans the helm of this production, which takes place on a spare set of cleverly shifting ladders and ropes, with players outfitted in period Victorian dress with a bit of pirate thrown in. A handful of musical numbers, under the musical direction of Sam Henderson, lightly sprinkles the show.

Such unassuming trappings come together in a deceptively minimalist treatment of this prequel to Peter’s arrested development. Be on the lookout for lost boys; Wendy’s mother, Mrs. Darling, in her own youthful days; and a marauding captain in the days before he acquired a certain right hook. What’s more, the dozen-plus cast draws mainly from the males in the Charleston Stage company, with only one person on stage marked with an XX chromosomes. That’s not to say there is only one female character: Many of the men on stage gamely, giddily take on roles of governesses, mermaids, and such.

Fear not: Though at first glance, the lack of today’s production-on-steroids razzle dazzle and leading lady sparkle may suggest a less spectacular undertaking, Peter and the Starcatcher offers beguiling proof in the staying power of a smart, funny, and plot-centric work, which in this case ingeniously deploys the raw materials of a child’s fertile imagination. Ask any kid. A household ladder can lift you up in ways a fancy theatrical fly system cannot. A length of rope undulating into a wave can perhaps transport you leagues farther than a Broadway glitter bomb that is so de rigueur these days.

Because, after all, that’s what kids do. Kitchen colanders are headgear for island savages. Broom ends are suitable fins for magical mermaids. (In my own household, my toddler’s aching desire for a puppy compels her to regularly walk her Swiffer dog around our house.) There is little on stage in Peter and the Starcatcher that couldn’t be fashioned out of your own utility closet. And that’s the point, really.

So about that plot. That one previously mentioned female actor, the lissome, spunky Madeline Glenn Thomas, makes up for the dearth of women actors in the leading role of 13-year-old Molly Aster, who sets sail for the island of Rundoon on The Neverland, along with her father, Lord Leonard Aster (the commanding David Loar); her nanny, Lady Bumbrake, who is played with deft comedic skill by Matthew Willingham; and a trunk full of some sort of treasure. Calamity sweeps in with The Wasp, another vessel headed for Rundoon, and soon young Molly is separated from daddy, nanny, treasure, and all.

With trademark British wit and pluck, Molly perseveres, enlisting the help of three passengers, the orphan boys Prentiss (Sean Michael Kelly), Ted (Pen Chance), and, of course, poor Peter (the terrific John Black). After his lean and mean years at the orphanage, Peter pines for his lost boyhood and is keen to have at it — at least for a little while. However, first they must safeguard Lord Aster and that all-important trunk. In the face of the cold-blooded, marvelously campy pirate captain Black Stache (Brian Porter) and his sinister stalwart Smee (Atam Woodruff), a safe landing on Rundoon is not for wusses, no matter age or gender.

What the play and the production achieve through their inventive ladders and ropes is remarkable. Peter and the Starcatcher gives you the very tools of your own dust-covered childlike wonder, which it turns out doesn’t require mega-million-dollar productions or hyper-animation. All in all, Peter and the Starcatcher gives young and old just what we all secretly pine for. Like Peter, while tucked safely in our seat at the Dock Street Theatre, we all get a chance to remain a child — at least, as Peter himself is wont to say, for a little while.

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