Theater Review: Peter Pan Prequel — A Little Too Heavy to Take Off

At the Lyric Stage Company, Peter and the Starcatcher charms, but doesn’t quite take flight.

Peter and the Starcatcher, a play by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Music by Wayne Barker Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Staged by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA, through June 26.

Black Stache lying on trunk in the Lyric Stage production of "

Ed Hoopman (Black Stache) lying on a trunk in the Lyric Stage production of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Photo: Glenn Perry.

By Kamela Dolinova

There’s a deep-seated magic to the Peter Pan story, a spark, bright as Tinkerbell and as hard to pin down and define. J.M. Barrie’s story may have burst into the canon of beloved children’s tales in the early 20th century, but its allure and stamina are so powerful that it seems as if it has always existed, alongside Lewis Carroll’s Alice and the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. My first real theatrical experience was seeing Sandy Duncan as Peter on Broadway: I was five years old, and I remember gushing to my mother afterward that I almost touched Peter’s foot as he flew over our heads. Whether that was technically true or not didn’t matter — I was caught up in the exhilaration of the story and the production.

Peter Pan and other deeply magical stories endure, remaining powerful well into adulthood. Only a few years ago Transatlantic Love Affair’s retelling of Cinderella in Ash Land supplied moments of  wonder. In that production a group of actors — with no set or props, supported by a single slide guitar — left me in awed tears.

Sadly, that kind of dazzling inspiration is somehow missing from the Lyric Stage Company’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher, a Peter Pan prequel that made a recent splash on Broadway. The play is funny and engaging, the staging cunning, the cast strong, with a few of the main players excellent. But the thing never quite reaches Neverland — or perhaps, more appropriately, the show never really takes off. This is Peter before the pixie dust, and though house cats, crocodiles, and even children fly before the story is done, the moments that should be magical lack the necessary lift.

That’s not to say that the show isn’t worth seeing. The script, adapted by Rick Elice from a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is a lot of fun — loaded with playful digs at the British Empire (and imperialism in general), knowing anachronistic references, terrible puns, and hilarious malapropisms. The show sports a fantastic heroine in Molly, played by the winning Erica Spyres. Marc Pierre shines as the no-name orphan who will become the Pan; his boy sidekicks (Tyler Simahk and Matt Spano) are equally beguiling. The foppish villain Black Stache – played by a show-stealing Ed Hoopman — is the best thing to happen to Captain Hook since Dustin Hoffman. And a powerful ensemble — with standouts Damon Singletary as Lord Astor, Will McGarrahan as Mrs. Bumbrake, and Alejandro Simoes as Smee — works tightly together to keep the proceedings humming along.

Some of director Spiro Veloudos’ staging solutions to thorny problems are wonderful: in one point, Molly goes around the ship, looking for pigs (don’t ask), opening every set of doors she finds. The “doors” are people standing side by side. When they are opened everyone on the stage bursts into whatever activity is taking place in the room Molly’s peeking into. Each “door” discloses (for about five seconds) something different — a dance hall, a church service, a rowdy gambling joint. In another scene, the ensemble opens green umbrellas to suggest that they are struggling through a rainy night in the jungle. These are the types of moments that, ordinarily, would bring a chill, a gasp, a jolt of delight. But somehow they fell short, coming off as precious or drawing a smile rather than generating a sense of wonder. Again, what casts a theatrical spell is hard to define; the incantation is elusive. As Black Stache laments, magic is as hard to find “as a melody in a Philip Glass opera.”

Part of the difficulty may lie with the lackluster quality of the show’s music. Peter and the Starcatcher is sometimes billed as a musical, but, fact is, it is a play with some songs tossed in. The tunes here — with the exception of the perfect Act II opener, a fantasia with gender-bent mermaids doing Busby Berkeley routines — are few and forgettable. Also, there are scenes that seemed as if they should escalate emotionally into a song. Instead, they rose, hung, then drifted downward into the next segment of the plot. You are left feeling as if the play is a bit of a tease — it leads you up to the possibility of a tuneful emotional release, then lets you down.

The show is much stronger when it comes to delivering a message. The orphan Peter’s speech to the privileged Molly, telling her how “sorry” doesn’t make up for years of suffering, hits especially hard. Molly’s later barb — “It’s supposed to hurt, that’s how you know it meant something” — neatly delivers a brutal lesson, one of Peter Pan‘s essential takeaways: the agony of growing up.

Thus we arrive at the paradox at the heart of Starcatcher: the show is about a magical character who never grows up, but the focus is on how he got that way, so it is steeped in the prosaic suffering of childhood. We meet Peter and the Lost Boys when they are orphans, beaten and bullied by callous adults. In the end, they are abandoned on a remote island to care for themselves because they dared to touch the fantastic, mostly by accident. “I hate grownups!” Peter repeats throughout the show. “They always lie! They lie, and then they leave.”

It’s very hard to argue with that — and, perhaps, it suggests how hard it is for show like this to strike the right balance between grim reality and childlike belief.

Kamela Dolinova is a writer, actor, director, healer, and person with too many jobs. She loves the community and little theatre scenes in Boston, and has recently enjoyed working with Flat Earth Theatre, Theatre@First, and Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company. She also blogs at Power In Your Hands.

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