Each year when I watch the Tony Awards, I make mental notes of which shows to see and which to avoid. A few years ago, “Peter and the Starcatcher” was on the show, and Christian Borle’s performance convinced me this was a show I had to see. So when it was announced that the tour would hit the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, plans were made to acquire Hottix. Last night was the culmination, when we went to the Ahmanson to see Peter.
How should I describe this story (which was adapted from the original Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson book by Rick Elice (FB))? I could just point you to the Wikipedia page, which has a full description of the plot. I could just say this Peter and the Starcatcher is to Peter Pan as Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz: A prequel that explains the origins of the base story’s characters in a clever and interesting way. But this is a story, and all stories must begin with “Once upon a Time.”
Once upon a time there were three orphans in London – Boy, Prentiss, and Ted. They were sold to Fighting Prawn, an island chief on Mollusk Island, and were to be transported to their doom aboard the Never Land. There was also once a British Lord, Lord Aster, and his daughter Molly. They were also on their way to Mollusk Island to transport a trunk from Queen Victoria to the chief of the Island, abort the fastest frigate in the land, the Wasp, captained by Captain Robert Scott. But the Lord secretly wanted to destroy the trunk. There was also the captain of the Never Land, Slank, who wanted the valuable contents of the trunk and so arranged for the trunk to be swapped with an identical trunk filled with sand before they left port. Slank was also transporting Molly and her caretaker, Mrs. Bumbrake, as his was the slower and safe ship. While on the way to the island, a pirate crew, led by the cruel and anachronistic and crazy Black Stache, assisted by his right hand man Smee, take over the Wasp. They discover the sand filled trunk, and turn around to capture the slower Never Land. Meanwhile, Molly has befriended the orphan boys and rescued them. When Stache arrives, a battle ensuses. Boy is charged to protect the trunk, and floats with it to the island, while the others follow. While floating, some of the contents of the real trunk (star stuff) leaks out.
The second act presents the effect of that star stuff, and we learn how each of their characters became who they were intended to be. Boy becomes Peter Pan, Molly the woman who would be Wendy’s mother, and Stache becomes Hook. Along the way, there are singing mermaids, fights, crocodiles, and all sorts of sillyness. There is also heroism — it is this heroism that transforms both Peter and Stasche into the eternal opponents they are.
This is a silly story, presented with loads of imagination. In some ways similar to staging of the earlier Scottsboro Boys (there’s a comparison I bet you never thought you would see): the sets are not realistic, and through simple props, some ropes, and lots of excellent sound effects, you are transformed in your imagination. For whatever reason, the sillyness of this story combined with the staging approach offended quite a few people: we had two couples sitting near us leave by the second scene, and a number of the older crowd in the Orchestra left at intermission. Their loss.
As for me, I loved it. First, I love backstories (which is why I’ve read all of Gregory Maguire‘s books), and Peter/Starcatcher is an imaginative and clever way of explaining how Pan and the other characters came to be. More importantly, I loved the message and lines such as this nugget: “Things are only worth what you’re willing to give up for them.” Profound insight. The play demonstrated the meaning of heroism through that message: what transforms Peter into a leader is what he gives up; what transforms Molly is what she gives up; and in a sense, what transforms Stache is what he gives up (and let’s all give him a hand). I loved the clever staging; I loved the anachronisms and word play; I loved when the fourth wall was occasionally broken; I loved the fun the actors were clearly having with this piece; and I loved the inventive, clever, and even more amazingly live sound effects. This was, simply, a fun play that carried one message that spoke to children, and a different but equally important message that spoke to the adults — and so was doubly impactful for childish adults like me.
I’ll also note that it was quite interesting seeing this play the same year that I saw “Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers” at the Blank. That was a version of Pan that wasn’t the cuteified Disney version nor the musical Broadway version. That was a gritty version. It noted the importance of the mother figure to Peter, and in that play, Hook notes that the mother is Peter’s weakness. Starcatcher shows the relationship between Peter and Molly (Wendy’s mother), and how the transformation of the star stuff led Peter to give up Molly. Now think again about the line: “Things are only worth what you’re willing to give up for them.” Peter gives up Molly because he is forced to; he’s not willing to give her up, but gives her up to find home. The two productions do interconnect nicely. So in the end, does Peter hate mothers? Peter is a boy — he doesn’t know what true love or hate is — he only knows childish love and hate. Peter hates grownups, doesn’t understand their motivations, and doesn’t think what his actions do. Peter loves his mother / Molly, and doesn’t even realize the hurt he creates — and how his mothers actually love the hurt because they love Peter.
This is one production where one must acknowledge the director’s vision. Roger Rees (FB) and Alex Timbers (FB), the directors, brought a unique creative vision to this production. It is not the typical realistic set that one sees; it is not the typical realistic characters. It is imagination on stage in a way that forces the audience to join in the imagination and the fun. They create, with an obvious wink, a clear impression that these are actors telling a story, but a story that they love. Is it true? Does it matter?
The performances are also top notch, led by John Sanders (FB) as Black Stache. Although I would loved to have seen Borle play this, Sanders was comic perfection. I will never think about the words “Oh My God” the same after the scene where Stache loses his hand. The man was manic, and I couldn’t tell where the script stopped and direction began, where direction ended and improvisation began, and where improvisation ended. He was just fun to watch whenever he was onstage chewing the scenery (such as it was), interacting with his Smee, Pan, and the others. The production is worth seeing for him alone.
Equally strong were Megan Stern (FB) as Molly and Joey DeBettencourt (FB) as Boy/Peter. Stern’s Molly projects spunk and self-confidence — this is one girl who knows who she is, what she is, and what she wants to be — and won’t let any boy stand in the way of that goal. She had strong comic timing, and projected a joy and power that shone through the theatre. DeBettencourt’s Boy transforms during the show. At the beginning he is timid and beaten down, lagging behind his friends Prentiss and Ted. By the end he can stand up and crow about the things that he has done. Theatre is at its best when characters transform and change as a result of what happens on stage, and this is something that clearly happens to DeBettencourt’s Boy/Pan, and this growth (in turn) leads other characters to grow. DeBettencourt portrays this growth well, and clearly projects the fun he is having with the role.
The supporting characters are also quite strong. As Smee, Luke Smith (FB) is the man behind the hook, the almost brains-of-the-bunch. He is delightful to watch as he corrects Black Stache, and his performance as a mermaid is an image you’ll never get out of your brain. Again, this young man seems to just be having fun with this character. Also having fun is Benjamin Schrader (FB) as Mrs. Bumbrake. Following in the English Music Hall tradition of a man playing a woman for comic effect, Schrader’s Bumbrake is hilarious, both as she attempts to protect Molly, as well as when she is being wooed by Alf (Harter Clingman (FB)), one of Slank’s crew.
Rounding out the cast (and clearly having a lot of fun) were the aformentioned Harter Clingman (FB) (Alf), Jimonn Cole (FB) (Capt. Slank), Nathan Hosner (FB) (Lord Aster), Carl Howell (FB) (Prentiss), Ian Michael Stuart (FB) (Capt. Scott), Edward Tournier (FB) (Ted), and Lee Zarrett (FB) (Fighting Prawn). The understudies, who we did not see, were Ben Beckley (FB) (u/s Smee / Slank / Alf / Fighting Prawn / Mrs. Bumbrake), Robert Franklin Neill (FB) (u/s Lord Aster / Slank / Alf / Black Stache / Capt. Scott), Rachel Prather (FB) (u/s Molly / Ted / Prentiss / Mrs. Bumbrake), and Nick Vidal (FB) (u/s Boy / Prentiss / Ted / Fighting Prawn / Capt Scott).
This is an intensely choreographed production, without ever calling it choreography because there is no formal dance. Similarly, although there is music this is not a musical, because the music does not propel the story. Credit for this aspect of the creativity goes to Steven Hoggett (FB) (Movement) and Wayne Barker (FB) (Composer). Supporting these two were Rachel Prather (FB) as the movement captain, and Benjamin Schrader (FB) as the fight captain. Andy Grobengieser (FB) was the musical director, and coordinated the three musicians, who were suspended on boxes on the side of the stage. Additional related credits are: Marco Paguia (FB) (Musical Supervisor), Lillian King (FB) (Associate Director), Patrick McCollum (FB) (Movement Associate), and Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum (FB) (Fight Director).
The creative team for this show won a number of Tony awards, and deservedly so. I’ve already mentioned the creative set design of Donyale Werle (FB). Also notable was the sound design of Darron L. West (FB), who created numerous amazing sound effects, seemingly live. The costumes of Paloma Young (FB) were creative and adaptable, as could be seen in the inventive costumes for Stache, Bumbrake, and the crocodile. Jeff Croiter‘s (FB) lighting design was effective in creating and establishing moods, and was particularly notable during the fight scenes where the lights were rising and falling in the background. Additional related credits are: Michael Carnahan (Associate Scenic Designer), Katherine Wallace (Production Supervisor), Shawn Pennington (FB) Production Stage Manager), McKenzie Murphy (FB) (Assistant Stage Manager), and Phoenix Entertainment (Production and Technical Supervision).
“Peter and the Starcatcher” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until January 12. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office, and perhaps through Goldstar. It is well worth seeing.
I’ll note this is my last theatre writeup of 2013. It’s been an interesting theatre year, with loads of great shows. Los Angeles is a great theatre town, and I’m sure (if you’re not in Los Angeles) you can find great theatre in your city. You can see a movie anytime. Treat yourself to the gift of theatre for 2014!
[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I've been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I've been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I'm a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]
Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: Remaining in 2014 is the traditional movie and Asian Food on Christmas Day — right now, the two movie possibilities are “Saving Mr. Banks” opening December 13 (meaning we can use group discount tickets), or “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opening December 25. I’m also interested in “Inside Llewyn Davis” for both its soundtrack and its story (based off the live of Dave Van Ronk). None of the other December releases look worth the money (I’d rather see “August: Osage County” on the stage, thankyouverymuch). Looking into January: Our first ticketed performance is a concert performance of MooNie and Broon (FB) at The Colony Theatre (FB) on January 11. The first scheduled theatre is on January 18: “Mom’s Gift” at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood. The following weekend, January 25, brings the first show of the REP East (FB) 10th season: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“ (which we last saw at REP in 2006). February 1 may also bring “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” at the Mark Taper Forum, depending on Hottix availability (alternate dates are 2/2 and 2/9). February 8 will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend, February 15, is being held for Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The last weekend of February, February 22, is currently being held for Sutton Foster at the Broad Stage (FB) in Santa Monica (if I can find discount tickets). March brings “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8, and “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. It may also bring “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on March 22. The end of the month (actually April 5) bring “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.