Center Stage's Peter and Starcatcher feels like you're watching a mix between a vaudeville production and a really good forensics piece. With elegantly simple sets, vibrant costumes, and a script that charges forward at a whirlwind pace, it is certainly a theatrical experience like no other, and I mean that as a good thing (mostly).
Starcatcher is a prequel to J.M Barrie's illustrious classic Peter Pan. Based on the 2004 novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson of the same name, the play provides the backstory of all of your favorite characters and then some. The story starts as a tale of two trunks - identical, but one full of a special treasure and the other a decoy full of sand. Lord Aster (Stephen Fort) is a secret agent for Queen Victoria tasked with taking the treasure aboard the fastest ship in the fleet, The Wasp, and destroying it. Meanwhile the decoy is to be packed aboard The Neverland, which has seen better days, and taken in the other direction by shifty captain Bill Slank (Devon Valko-Dib). Also aboard The Neverland is Molly Aster (Maddy Paxson), a brilliant and gifted (although socially awkward) teen who has been left by her father for safekeeping, and 13 year old Boy (played by Samuel Nowak), a friendless orphan who has seen the worst life has to offer. He and two other orphans are sold and packed aboard The Neverland in a box bound for slavery or worse. Unbeknownst to our heroes, Captain Slank has switched out the chests and is intending a double-cross, giving the treasure to the evil king of Rundoon in exchange for a handsome reward. All would have gone according to his nefarious plan, except The Wasp is intercepted by a fearsome and scenery chewing pirate with a penchant for malaprops, Black Stache (Stephen Holty), and the decoy chest is revealed. The race is on between The Wasp (now a hijacked pirate vessel with Lord Aster as a prisoner) and The Neverland (containing Molly and the orphan boys) that will decide the fate of the treasure and perhaps the whole world.
And so our scene is set. If that seems a bit confusing, it's because it is. Most of this action takes place in a large expository scene at the beginning of the play, and the names and introductions come fast and furious. I try to enter into a review with no preconceived notions of the show, and I was struggling to keep up. I also brought my four year old daughter with me (more on that later), and she was having a hard time staying interested during the first 20 minutes or so.
This is a structural issue with the show, and not an indictment of the amazing cast that director Elaine DiFalco Daugherty has assembled here. This is an extremely challenging script that relies almost exclusively on the actors and their abilities to act/react, imagine props that aren't there or are only skeletons of props, become furniture and scenes, and remember lines in whip-quick succession. And don't forget a group of midwestern Americans having to do an entire show in British accents! It is marvel of athleticism and comedic timing, and it is frankly hard to believe that this cast is assembled from local talent. There is not a weak one in the bunch. Holty as Black Stache is a delight, contrasting his solid and masculine presence with silliness and melodrama - everything we want out of a great villain and more. Fort is a fantastic contrast as a "stiff upper lip" Victorian gentleman, playing straight man with reserved dignity that grounds the show. Paxson is utterly charming as Molly, in whom we will recognize echoes of great heroines like Hermione Granger and Anne of Green Gables. She and Nowak pull the audience along in a classic coming-of-age tale, learning about leadership, bravery, and even love. Nowak has arguably the most difficult job in the show, portraying an iconic character before he was iconic, and showing the evolution of an abused boy into the spritely and free character we all know and love. He does so with great earnestness and vulnerability. One minor issue with both Paxson and Nowak is is that, as college-age actors portraying young teens, they sometimes overshot into "little kids."
The rest of the actors are all equally fabulous, and to name each one in turn would take too much room in this review. Special standouts were Zach Whitt, who performed his role entirely in drag and managed to make it not feel like low humor, Ryan Sequin who paired with Whitt as a delightful side couple, Fletcher J Nowak as a perpetually hungry orphan (with impeccable and natural comedic timing!), and Andy Harrington who played several pivotal roles with multiple accents and great differentiation.
Starcatcher isn't a musical, but it does have musical numbers directed and accompanied by Sara Taylor that lend to the vaudevillian feel. These ranged from passable to excellent, with special recognition to the Act 2 Opener "Mermaids." Costumes by Courtney Anderson Brown and supervised by Sarah Harrington were especially excellent in this scene, absolutely nailing the "pieced together" flotsam look while still being polished and cohesive. The whole show was impeccably and cleverly costumed, and props by Jenn Joseph were also impressive.
Set Design by Evan Lewis was elegantly simple, with enough textures to be interesting in Act 1 and mounds of "lost things" in Act 2. There were things to look at and it felt like a realized space, but it didn't take away from the action on stage. I only wished the projections were a bit larger and more visible behind the set pieces, especially at the end of the show. Sound by Justin Hodge was rigorous, with many items being only sound cues and an actor interacting with them. Mics were good and all lines were audible through the accents, which is a deceptively difficult task. Lights by Paul Collins were good, with colorful changes and cues happening in quick succession, and some interesting silhouette business in Act 2.
Special note must be made of Movement by Heather Trommer Beardslee. I don't know how much of the blocking was arranged by her and how much was arranged by Daugherty, but the energy and movement never stopped. Their work on Starcatcher is a beautiful example of how to keep shows interesting physically even without built-in levels on the stage, with running, dancing, jumping, climbing, stooping, crawling - there was not one single posture that wasn't used at some point in the show. The amount of work that went into this show is absolutely stunning. Daugherty has done a masterful job of directing, from assembling this team to making sure everything is cohesive.
While there is a lot to love about Peter and the Starcatcher, it wasn't quite a home run for me. It is an insider-y show, with lots of references and anachronisms. The tone leans heavily to the comedic, sometimes at the expense of the magic and story. The plot is too convoluted for something that ultimately resolves itself, brushing over points in an effort to get to the next joke. In several instances I found myself wishing for a little more whimsy instead of winky, "this is so bad it's good" humor. The audience was full of adults and a few older kids, with good reason. The humor lands high above the level of an average kid (except for the good ol' standby fart jokes), and because so many scenes rely entirely on the audience's imagination and moves very fast, it is a bit too confusing for young children. The truly magical moments (the mermaids, Mr. Grin, the grotto, etc.) all take place in Act 2, while Act 1 is weighed down with the exposition of a chapter book trying to fit into a 2 hour play. Again, this is an issue with the script for the most part and not the director’s approach to it.
Peter and the Starcatcher is well worth a view. It is a great example of actors at the top of their craft, and technical aspects that are thrilling and unique. For older kids and teens, especially those interested in theatre, it's a must-see. For adults who want a fun night out, Starcatcher is charming and amusing, and something not likely to be seen again. Peter and the Starcatcher is still running at The Midland Center for the Arts from May 12-19!
Peter and the Starcatcher runs for two more weekends at Midland Center for the Arts; for ticket information please visit their website or call the box office at (989) 631-8250.