Los Angeles Theater Review: PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (Ahmanson Theatre)

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by Jason Rohrer on December 11, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Remember when George Lucas took the awesome, mystical enigma of The Force and shrank it to the antiseptic science of midi-chlorians, essentially just a kind of microbe? A similar literalism has infected J.M. Barrie’s Never Never Land. Fairy dust has been replaced by star stuff, a sort of meteorite residue, and the gulf between the two can be measured in light-years.


In a series of post-millennial kids’ books by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (published by Hyperion, a claw of the Disney crocodile, and commissioned into this stage version written by Jersey Boys’ Rick Elice, with a movie in the works), what amounts to a superhero origin story bluntly explains away one of the best-designed metaphors in children’s literature.  J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan delicately alludes to the condition of orphanhood — the lost boys fell out of strollers when their nurses weren’t looking. In Barrie’s play and the books that followed, Peter says that he ran away to live in Kensington Gardens among the fairies to avoid growing up. In Mr. Elice’s world, Peter (Joey deBettencourt) and his friends are actual Dickensian orphans, sold out of an orphanage into a long sea voyage at the end of which they’ll serve as snake food; all they want is a family.


The difference is that of poetry and prose. One is a provocative wonderment; the other, a mundane adventure. A fertile theme, the allure and folly and ultimate impossibility of total independence, now becomes a plot-heavy tale of kids fighting pirates to save Queen Victoria’s supernatural treasure, which the evil King of Randoon wants to steal, but the indigenous Mollusks want to keep. It is in fact the plot of every Indiana Jones movie.

Megan Stern and Joey deBettencourt in “Peter and the Starcatcher”

How’s this for distinct interpretations: J.M. Barrie wrote that “when the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.” The three writers of this new franchise entry grind Tinker Bell into existence with a mortar and pestle, out of an annoying bird and some comet crumbs.

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A crucial loss: Wendy, Peter’s old playmate from Peter Pan, interacted with and to an extent controlled the lost boys with charms and instincts specific to her sex. Her essential difference from the boys, her maternal potential, was the reason Peter lured Wendy home in the first place. Peter’s Starcatcher pal Molly (Megan Stern) does a very little bit of that mushy stuff, but mostly she out-swims and out-runs and all-around out-boys him, because that’s what little girls do in kids’ stuff nowadays.

It’s not that someone has changed the original that hurts — Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, for one, expands the forests and enriches the population of Oz — it’s that Philistines have changed it. Building on the Barry/Pearson model, Rick Elice subdivides Never Never Land for development.

The company of “Peter and the Starcatcher”

If all that’s required is an everyday children’s entertainment (with a first act that takes a half hour to get in gear; few characters written with actual character; songs by Wayne Barker that are musically nada and almost completely expositional), do there also have to be this many fart jokes in it? Is it just uptight to observe that Peter Pan plays have traditionally not resorted much to flatulence, puke, or milkshake-bringing-boys-to-the-yard references to enchant audiences? Or that after we’re deliberately placed in 1885, pandering anachronisms constantly remind us of the century, the decade, and even the evening from which we’re watching this story. BVDs-in-a-bunch jokes and Cadillac Escalade jokes and “these people have babysitters waiting up” jokes fish for laughs among the usual puns and alliterations one catches in the comic shallows. This show doesn’t provide an escape, it traps you in intellectual and emotional suburbia.

Joey deBettencourt and the company of ?Peter and the Starcatcher? opening December 4, 2013, at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre and continuing through January 12, 2014. (Preview on December 3.) The five-time Tony Award-winning musical play ?Peter

Happily, Disney and Mr. Elice have followed the Lion King formula and Julie Taymored-up this property, which is to say they have allowed this play to feel like a play rather than a staged film. Directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers play with the essential stagecraft elements of the original Peter Pan (remember how Father plays Hook?) in a most delightful manner. On Donyale Werle’s playful set, an emphasis on stylized ensemble performance (movement by Steven Hoggett) uses little more than ropes, ribbons, and hats (costumes by Paloma Young) to serve up almost all the creativity missing from this very ordinary pursuit-and-peril story. As a course in Theatricality 101, it’s extremely refreshing. It would be nice to see this much energy spent on a script that didn’t swallow it like a black hole.

The company of “Peter and the Starcatcher”

A whole cast as enthusiastic, skilled and talented as John Sanders, who plays a prototype of the pirate Hook, would make this dumb thing feel smarter. But the Center Theatre Group production has no outstanding performance to match his, and in fact the play affords no character of remotely equal meat for an actor to chew. His Black Stache and, to a lesser extent, Ms. Stern’s Molly, divide nearly all the good lines between them. As good as these actors, designers, and musicians are (Andy Grobengieser, music director/keyboard; Jeremy Lowe, drums/percussion), this play never allowed me to fly away from the Ahmanson to that magical place every theatergoer wants to visit.

The company of “Peter and the Starcatcher”

photos by Jenny Anderson

Peter and the Starcatcher
Center Theatre Group
Ahmanson Theatre
ends on January 12, 2014
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit CTG

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