To walk out of the Little Theatre on a balmy summer night after the curtain closes on the expertly crafted production of “Peter and the Starcatcher" is to have spent two and a half delightful hours in the hands of master storytellers. Moreover, it is to know “all the joy you’ll find when you leave the world behind,” as Peter Pan himself said through J.M. Barrie’s pen.
This Tony Award-winning play by Rick Elice that opened on Broadway in 2012 — adapted from the 2004 best-selling children’s novel that served as a prequel to Barrie’s 1904 play “Peter and Wendy” — imagines the backstory for the beloved character who never grows up and his cohort on Neverland.
The script is terrifically clever, full of witticisms, anachronisms, and malapropisms — both high- and low-brow, appealing to the child as well as the sophisticated grown up who longs for depth in each of us. It satirizes the British Empire from a mildly postcolonial point of view, and yet fart jokes abound, as do references to contemporary pop culture far beyond the imaginations of these Victorian characters. The mashup is glorious. When the characters at this Farmers Alley Theatre production break the fourth wall, it both heightens the realism and the magic of what’s happening on stage.
And what’s happening is this: Peter Pan’s coming of age from orphan to mystical creature amid a treacherous ocean voyage, precious cargo belonging to the Queen herself; a very precocious little girl; a very bad villain in search of his heroic match; a glittering, shimmering, cross-dressing, vaudevillian mermaid fan dance; a flying cat; a very sweet love story that most decidedly isn’t sentimental in the least; and some even downright spiritual lessons.
At Farmers Alley, all of this comes to life brilliantly with just twelve actors in period costumes, two musicians, and some wooden crates, draped fabric, and a rope that plays nearly as many characters as some of the actors, including a mirror, a frame, the tide itself, and a boxing ring.
OK, it’s more than that, but the point is this extraordinarily rich storytelling and theatrical experience is more minimal than one might think possible, as this is the way the show is scripted. Quite a bit of credit also has to be given to Director/Choreographer Stephen Brotebeck, who worked as the Movement Associate on the Broadway production and has clearly brought his skill and wisdom from that experience to Farmers Alley to create beautiful stage scenes and an extremely successful show. Not to mention, he put together a universally brilliant cast and an all-star design team.
The sharp ensemble has perfect timing from the jump, each member building distinct and varied characters that are a joy to watch. Harrison Bryan’s Peter undergoes astounding and utterly believable transformation, eliciting genuine emotion that runs the gamut from pity to tears of joy. Courtney Martin’s Molly, the starcatcher apprentice, seems made of “star stuff” herself. Not only does her “milkshake bring the boys to the yard” as villain Stache suggests, quoting Kelis, but she embodies Peter Pan’s claim to Wendy in another text that “one girl is more use than twenty boys.” Together they are charming.
Though many actors, including Rod Cone as Smee, Michael P. Martin as Mrs. Bumbrake, and Brad Poer as Alf, (among pretty much everyone else on stage) are wonderful comedians, Christopher Matsos is simply astoundingly witty, clever and hilarious as the fey chief villain Black Stache with a very posh accent and slight lisp. Every choice, every facial gesture, every movement, every stance, every inflection is a revelation. His performance is what is possible when a brilliant actor, brilliant character and brilliant director come together.
The actors play together with great panache, create elegant and quick scene changes, and are supported by exceptional designers and musicians. Kristen Chesak’s lighting design, both bold and subtle with flashes of bright color and soft warm glow, works magnificently on Kristen Martino’s inventive and deceptively simple scenic design. Tony Holewinski’s props, including that flying cat and yellow rubber gloves as birds, get their own laughs, as do Kathryn Wagner’s fabulous costumes, most notably those that sparkle in the mermaid fan dance number. Music Director Lori Hatfield on keyboard with Andy Knibloe on percussion create an extraordinary cacophony of sound and sound effects, sometimes supporting singers, and sometimes simply as accoutrements to straight scenes.
Perhaps it’s more important than ever to escape a little bit, especially by supporting local arts. Why not leave the world behind for a couple of hours? Find all the joy in this superb show.
Peter and the Starcatcher
Farmers Alley Theatre
July 71-August 6