Chicago Theater Review: PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (Drury Lane Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 4, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

A POOR MAN’S PETER PAN

Let’s put two prequels in perspective: What the novel-based Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz, Peter and the Starcatcher, a novel-derived “origins tale,” is for Sir James Barrie’s wonderful Peter Pan. Both “earlier versions” were written long after their celebrated “sequels.” Retrospectively, both provide complementary or alternate explanations for characters and crises to come. If they don’t add, they inevitably subtract.

Caleb Donahoe (Boy), Matt Mueller (Black Stache) Emma Rosenthal (Molly) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher.

The challenge for Drury Lane Theatre’s regional premiere becomes: Does it hold its own or even improve on the original (which is in fact the successor)? Wicked has yielded a mixed verdict. Based on a book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (no mention of Barrie at all), Rick Elice’s 2004 stage adaptation (with scattered songs by Wayne Barker) provides utterly unnecessary proof that you can’t fix what wasn’t broken.

Emma Rosenthal as Molly Aster.

Compulsively jokey, intensely irritating, fairly funny but never witty, so frenetic it makes ADHD look sedate, and anachronistic enough to be dated when its 1904 source will never be, this pretender can’t fly (by Foy or by script). Though it lacks any levitating “fairy dust” (its “stardust” lifts no characters), this Disney-fied offering aims to amuse–desperately and sometimes successfully. It fully earns its right to be a footnote to a classic.

Andrew Mueller (Fighting Prawn), Caleb Donahoe (Boy) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher.

Elice’s dogged concoction feels like it makes itself up as it goes: With 12 actors playing over 100 characters, these frenetic 140 minutes deliver a work that’s drunk on its self-confessed cleverness and seethes with self-referential self-reverence. The result is a cluttered, confusing and convulsive anticipation of superior adventures in Neverland by eternally young Peter Pan, the Lost Boys, Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily and her tribe, Captain Hook and his pirate band, as well as the Darling siblings (John, Michael and maternal-minded Wendy), their doting parents, and the canine nanny Nana.

Zach Colona (Ted), Emma Rosenthal (Molly), Aaron Kirby (Prentiss) and Caleb Donahoe (Boy).

Gruel to that caviar, Elice’s arbitrary adventures, retroactively ripped off from Barrie’s richer whimsy, consist of two sea voyages in 1881. Embarking on nonsensical journeys are the “Wasp”–a pirate ship manned by an imbecilic future Captain Hook (Matt Mueller), here named for his moustache, who loses his hand, not to a crocodile, but to a stupid self-amputation with the lid of a trunk–and the “Neverland”–led by the future Sir Robert Scott of the Antarctic (Brandon Springman) and a stuffy Lord Aster (Rod Thomas) who’s transporting a trunk for Queen Victoria to an island dependency.

Matt Mueller (center, as Black Stache) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher.

Somehow the queen’s treasure trunk gets switched with another which contains star stuff that resembles sand. Its unexplained special powers are sacred to Aster’s plucky daughter Molly (Wendy’s future mother). She befriends an unnamed and mistreated orphan who will become Peter Pan and his pals, future “lost boys” Ted (Zack Colonna) and Emma Rosenthal (Molly) and Caleb Donahoe (Boy).Prentiss (Aaron Kirby). When the competing vessels reach the island, the crack-brained travelers confront a cannibal king named Fighting Prawn (Andrew Mueller), as well as a flying cat (an ugly sight gag), the crocodile named Gremkin, and the piratical Black Stache and his crew of troglodytic corsairs.

Ineptly paraphrasing Barrie’s line that “Death will be an awfully great adventure,” this silly, sophomoric “creation myth” maintains that “To have faith is to have wings.” Except here nobody flies, literally or lyrically. Like a crazed Christmas pantomime, Elice’s chronic wordplay lurches from dreadful puns to social-media slang to the clumsy patter that killed vaudeville (“It’s Smee, captain!”). It’s hit-and-run humor, anything for a laugh, so eager to please (as in one damn thing after another) that little builds on anything else. There’s no virtue in explaining the second act’s manic mermaids (former fish transformed by the stardust into half humans), the “Norse code” that Lord Aster uses to signal Molly, others who speak Dodo (after the doomed bird), a pandering gay affair, scatological flatulence, obesity and vomit gags, and the other demented detritus of this tedious tripe.

John Keating (Mrs. Bumbrake), Emma Rosenthal (Molly) and Rod Thomas (Lord Aster).

Only when the anarchy slows down can William Osetek’s staging hope to charm. It’s lovely to watch handsome Caleb Donahoe’s sad soul Peter, an abused, half-dead boy who distrusts grownups and is afraid of darkness, slowly awaken to life and love, thanks to Emma Rosenthal’s ministering Molly. Like the show, her character may be allergic to sentiment, but in these magical moments we foresee Barrie’s brilliant future saga. Suddenly if briefly, the frantic, topsy-turvy randomness of this paltry prequel sweetens into something like substance.

Caleb Donahoe (Boy), Jeff Dumas (Smee), Jake Klinkhammer (Alf), Rhett Guter (Slank), Andrew Mueller (Fighting Prawn), Matt Mueller (Black Stache) and John Keating (Mrs. Bumbrake).

Sporadic tenderness notwithstanding, the only treatment for Elice’s relentless tomfoolery is distraction, not direction. Blessed with Scott Davis’ supple platform playground and inventive props, Sally Dolembo’s self-satirizing costumes, Ray Nardelli’s potent sound design, and Diane Ferry Williams’ witty lighting, this Peter proves effortfully entertaining. At times it’s so foolishly fantastic you could give in and guffaw. But Barrie did us better and audiences deserve the difference.

Caleb Donahoe as “Boy.”

Jake Klinkhammer (Alf), John Keating (Mrs. Bumbrake) and Emma Rosenthal (Molly).photos by Brett Beiner

Peter and the Starcatcher
Drury Lane Theatre
100 Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace
Wed at 1:30; Thurs at 1:30 & 8;
Fri at 8; Sat at 5 & 8; Sun at 2 & 6
ends on October 18, 2015
for tickets, call 630.530.0111
or visit www.drurylane.com

for more info on Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Roger September 9, 2015 at 11:58 am

Sorry, but that was 2 hrs. and 20 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. We almost got up to leave as a number of people did at intermission. It had the quality of a poor high school presentation with the stage props and the mermaid bit that made me really uncomfortable. Often, the actors were not understandable and I wished they were so I could find something to laugh at. As season ticket holders, we understand that not all of the plays can be as great as Billy Elliot, but with plays like these, there will be fewer season ticket holders.

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Suzanne Ashlock September 24, 2015 at 7:54 am

So sorry to disagree. I saw this yesterday, and I saw the touring company when it came through. I enjoyed yesterday’s performance much more than the touring company, and I really liked the touring company. This was unabashed entertainment. It was funny, fast-paced and fabulous (particularly the mermaid scene.) If I could see it again, I’m sure I would pick up on even more witty lines than I did the 1st and 2nd times; (Ex: “harder than trying to find the melody in a Philip Glass opera.”) The creativity and ingenuity of staging, the spot-on characterizations, and the just plain good fun will keep me renewing my season ticket subscription unlike the previous responder. I loved Billy Elliot, but thank goodness theatre has more than Billy Elliot for us. Sometimes, we just want to have fun.

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