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'Peter and the Starcatcher' catches laughs in Bushnell engagement

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'Peter and the Starcatcher' at Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts

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Combine the best techniques of story theater with the innovative use of found objects (ie. junk) to fashion a set, along with a pun-filled, reference dripping, vaudevillian style script and that pretty much describes the generally delightful evening in store for audiences as the national touring company of “Peter and the Starcatcher” settles in for a weeklong run at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

At its heart, “Peter” is essentially an origin tale, a prequel to the classic “Peter Pan,” explaining how orphan Peter came to Neverland, how he gained the ability to fly, how he became the leader of his fellow lost boys, how he met Tinkerbelle and ultimately how he became the nemesis of Captain Hook. It's also quite funny, but not in a way that ridicules the actual story, but rather pokes fun at the underlying themes of greed, dishonesty, and white male privilege in the western world. “Peter Pan” origin stories seem to be all the rage now, particularly for viewers of ABC Disney’s “Once Upon A Time” which this season has offered up its own unique take on the flying boy who refuses to grow up. And later this year, NBC is promising a live version of the musical “Peter Pan” with apparently a male actor in the title role, bucking a tradition that has famously included Mary Martin, Cathy Rigby and Sandy Duncan in the part.

As for origin stories, in this case, humor columnist Dave Barry and mystery-thriller author Ridley Pearson got there first, with their best-selling take on the subject with their children’s and young adult novel “Peter and the Starcatchers” (note the plural on their book, but singular for the stage version). Rick Elice, responsible for the books for “Jersey Boys” and “The Addams Family” on Broadway, adapted the book for the stage, where it was co-directed by Elice’s husband, the actor Roger Rees (“Cheers” and “Nicholas Nickleby”) and the off-Broadway sensation Alex Timbers (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Here Lies Love), who is now in previews for the monster Broadway production of the musical “Rocky,” which is indeed based on the popular boxing film.

Rees and Timbers have envisioned “Peter” as an ensemble show, with its 12-member cast playing a multitude of parts and serving as a supportive chorus in larger crowd scenes. It may seem a little confusing at first for younger children, but as the main characters emerge, the directors always make sure that it is obvious who each scene is about.

They also employ the techniques of the story theater movement that developed in the late 1960’s in which a cast member may narrate the action, while the ensemble members use their bodies to serve as scenery or props to help the main action along. This works particularly well when the cast lines up, backs to the audience, their bodies serving as doors while several main characters attempt to discover the layout on board a ship. The effect is heightened thanks to sound effects provided by two on-stage musicians stationed on towers above the action, who also accompany the action with Wayne Barker’s musical score.

As a result, the evening is full of awe and wonder, as say a long piece of rope is stretched into a rectangle to serve as a room or a doorway, the cast’s bright green umbrellas turn into dense jungle foliage, or a ripped shirt or a pair of bloomers serve as a sail. The directors’ creativity is indeed impressive, probably resulting from a synergy between the two, in which Rees perhaps tempered Timbers’ tendency for outlandish and anarchic images, while Timbers served to stretch Rees’ creative thinking.

The plot, which Elice has successfully compressed from the original book, is quite complex when you get to thinking about it. There are two ships heading for Rangoon, one on a mission from Queen Victoria (whose name is never spoken without a shout from the cast of “God Save Her”) containing a valuable shipment of golden “star stuff,” the powerful, life changing detritus of asteroids and meteors, while the other ship contains a decoy shipment. Lord Aster is aboard one ship, while his teenaged daughter, Molly, is aboard the other with her nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake, along with three orphans, one of whom has been orphaned for so long that he has forgotten his name. During the course of the evening, this young boy will indeed be given a name (twice, actually) and become bathed in the magical star stuff, which allows him to fly and to remain young forever.

As with any seafaring epic, there are horrendous storms as sea, wonderfully acted by a frantic cast gliding back and forth to create the impression of a tossed ship, and aided by Jeff Croiter’s intense and dynamic lighting and Darron L. West’s frighteningly atmospheric sound design, both of which received Tony Awards. Then of course there’s a shipwreck with various characters floating on assorted flotsam to a nearby island, where the dark and dreadful atmosphere aboard the two boats turns welcomingly into the bright, colorful world of the mysterious island where mermaids, crocodiles, and natives dwell.

I did find the first act aboard both boats to be a little too dimly lit, which makes it a bit difficult for an audience to initially warm to the characters and which can be a bit oppressive, no matter how ingeniously the directors stage the goings-on (and which they absolutely do!). And it’s sometimes easy to forget on which of the two ships the action is happening to take place. But the bathed in sunlight jungle of the second act affords an even larger number of theatrical surprises and accommodates the raucous comedy at the heart of the play.

While the play is amusing and fun from the very start, the humor and witty abandon goes up a notch with the arrival halfway through the first act of the villain of the play, the supposedly notorious, murderous pirate Black Stache, portrayed by the lanky, flexible John Sanders as a pompous fop, enchanted by his own self-created reputation. With an outsized black moustache painted across his face, he resembles and acts like a British Groucho Marx, with the appropriate double takes, double entendres, and the oversized personality appropriate to a dedicated scenery chewer. The plot requires Molly and the unnamed Boy to constantly try to outwit the ‘Stache, who is after the box containing the supposed treasure.

Megan Stern, as the only female in the cast, inhabits young Molly with the appropriate feminist bravado and courage—after all, she is an apprentice starcatcher—who presents her superiority over the lost boys with enough nuance to let us know that she is indeed vulnerable to the unnamed boy’s charms. Joey de Bettencourt does a tremendous job as the boy who will become Pan, showing how his sullen silences eventually get discarded for his growth into a confident hero who nonetheless feels as if his childhood has been taken away from him after years of torment in an inhospitable orphanage.

The tall, bald Jimonn Cole is impressive as the ruthless mate Slank who plans to sell the orphans into slavery once the ship reaches Rangoon and who has earlier switched the shipments between ships. Benjamin Shrader is pressed into delightful service, as well as into several dresses and nightgowns, as the anxious guardian Mrs. Bumbry who unexpectedly finds love in the person of the initially dangerous mate, Alf, played wonderfully by Harter Clingman, who easily depicts his character’s change into a protective pussycat devoted to Bumbry’s well-being. Luke Smith is fine as Stache’s somewhat dim first mate, Smee, who gets some laughs due to his constant correction of his boss’s malapropisms and from a running joke that results from his always answering “Smee” when asked his name. Also fun, particularly in the second act, are Carl Howell and Edward Tournier, as Peter’s fellow orphans, Prentiss and Ted, who are constantly arguing over which of them should be the leader, while inadvertantly revealing their fears and needs. Lee Zarrett makes a humorous impression as Fighting Prawn, the leader of the island’s natives with a distinctly British accent from his years in slavery in England.

The entire show is made even more enjoyable thanks to the Tony Award winning set and costume designs by Donyale Werle and Paloma Young respectively. They have created “green” designs that use environmentally friendly components, and incorporated found objects rescued from trash bins to make clever scenic elements and in particular some wonderfully outlandish outfits. The best example is probably a sequence in which the entire cast play mermaids with all sorts of items such as pie tins or tea cups as decorations on their swim suits. It’s also a pleasant wonder to see how the dank environs of the shrouded ships can quickly turn into the warmth and glow of the island with just a slight change of what appears to be an improvised back drop. And as for how they communicate the wrath and danger of a murderous crocodile, well, you may just have to see the show to see how they accomplish that feat, what with the makeshift concept of the set and costume design.

While there may be some concern that the show is perhaps a little too small and twee for a theater as large as the Bushnell, the cast seems to give their all throughout the evening, and several of the performances are deliberately larger-than-life. That shouldn’t stop anyone or any family from enjoying the show, which for the most part is appropriate for all ages, with some elements working better for children, while others, particularly some older cultural references, pleasing for adults.

Peter and the Starcatcher” plays through Sunday, February 28, at the Bushnell in Hartford. For tickets and information, call the Bushnell Box Office at 860.987.5900 or visit their website at www.bushnell.org.

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