The set-up: Have you ever seen true theater stardust? Not that plastic, manufactured spangly stuff that Miley Cyrus or those ubiquitous boy bands excrete, but real, genuine theater magic? The kind that makes you weep because of its surprise, talent, and imagination?
Fly over to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, where the stardust of Peter and the Starcatcher will astound, startle, and send you soaring. This award-winning play with music is here only through the weekend, more's the pity, via Gexa Energy Broadway. For a child of any age, theater amazement like this rarely appears once in any season, so please don't miss this!
The execution: As a prequel to J.M. Barrie's immortal tale of the boy who wouldn't grow up, Starcatcher fills in the back story of Peter Pan with vivid playmaking of the highest caliber.
Based on the 2004 children's novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, playwright Rick Elice (Tony winner for Jersey Boys) spins the story into a twee Victorian vaudeville, a marvelous "panto" of which the British are so fond, where men in dresses, bad puns, and all around silliness rule the stage. We know we're in someplace special just by seeing that golden, glittery proscenium arch with its outsized pineapple and ruby-red velvet swags. We're definitely in a land of old-fashioned make-believe.
Right at the beginning, the cast of 16 (who double or triple up roles throughout the show) asks us to use our imagination. If we fall short, not to worry, for the exceptional production design has that covered. Ship hawsers are transformed into cabin rooms or ocean waves through the wizardry of scenic designer Donyale Werle; a yellow rubber glove makes a glorious flighty bird from costume designer Paloma Young; a line of pirates becomes doors, creaking open and closed under Darron L. West's superlative sound design; a sky full of stars magically appears with a few flashlights, thanks to the star-struck lighting design by Jeff Croiter; a crocodile's gapping mouth is conjured with a sting of triangular pennants standing in for its sharp teeth; young Molly (Megan Stern, resourceful and proud of it) floats into the air merely by sitting on a seesaw.
Co-directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers supply plenty of prodigious magic to keep this show constantly in the air, ably abetted by "movement" by Steven Hoggett. (Whatever that is, it's awfully good and must be important since his credit is right above the directors.)
Elice wryly keeps the play hiply ironic by dropping in contemporary references among the Victoriana. When fey pirate chief Black Stache (John Sanders not only chews the scenery with maniacal relish, but actually dines on it) says that his "piratical BVDs are in a twist," we laugh out loud at this play-acting pirate with his painted-on Groucho mustache. Like a baggy-pants comedian with his seltzer bottle, Sanders is over-the-top, but that's the only way to play this show-stopping, once-in-a-lifetime role. Sanders skitters about the stage as if on roller skates, sliding along the top of the treasure chest then suddenly vaulting over it to land in a perfect position to begin another series of silly walks. Broad and hammy, his antics are absolutely sublime and immensely funny. "What do they call me, Smee," he commands to his loyal first mate Smee (an adorable Luke Smith). Smee replies without hesitation, "Nancy?"
The story is an adventure yarn about destroying a chest of "starstuff," the little bits of stars that fall to earth that can change a person into what he wants to be. When the chest is pushed overboard and its precious stuff leaks into the water, we get a deliciously drag "Florodora" number, a la Gilbert and Sullivan, where the fish are turned into comic mermaids and sing of their happiness.
Throughout, the musical numbers by Wayne Barker, with lyrics by Elice, are nimble and spry, catching the nostalgic, winking tone with arch rightness. Act I closes with a majestic choral anthem as Peter (Joey deBettencourt, all boyish pride and innocence) saves the chest of starstuff and heads for the island using his shirt for a sail. The rousing theme could have been penned by Elgar.
Peter has a Dickensian upbringing in an orphanage, where his childhood is snatched away from him; feisty, modern girl Molly is an apprentice star catcher, helping her father on his journey to take the chest across the sea to throw it into the volcano of Jalapeño (the hottest place on Earth); Black Stache covets the chest for the treasure he thinks is inside it; while other pirates, islanders, mermaids, and a proper English nanny (Benjamin Schrader) become entangled in the tale. Almost everything you know about Peter Pan has a clever antecedent in Starcatcher. How the crocodile got a kitchen timer inside him; how Peter received his name; how he found his home on Neverland with the Lost Boys; how Tinkerbell came to be -- it's all nimbly explained.
To be free and young without responsibility is universal in appeal. No matter how many ways Barrie's exceptional story is told, no matter how it's adapted or even changed, it still retains its uncanny power to stir the emotions.
The verdict: Peter and the Starcatcher is lighter than air, with only wisps of Barrie's patented sadness to leaven the music hall gaiety. This is a uniquely magical show, as its stagecraft invites us to be a willing partner, filling in the missing bits with our own imagination. We have as wonderful a time as do the actors. In fact, at the end, covered in theatrical starstuff, I think we fly higher. Now that's real theater magic.
Unfortunately, this buoyant play only runs through October 20 at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at houstonbroadway.com or call 800-982-2787. $53.50 to $95.75.
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