For fifteen years, theatre fans have hotly debated the cost/benefit of Disney's invasion of New York City's Broadway. Some of their efforts have been critical and popular successes, like The Lion King, which surpassed Phantom of the Opera this week as the highest grossing show in history. Others, like Tarzan and The Little Mermaid, ended up in the discard pile with notorious flops like Carrie.
The newest hit on Disney's Broadway resume is Newsies, a stage adaptation of the cult-favorite 1992 film. But another play inspired by classic Disney characters debuts on the Great White Way this Sunday, and has somehow managed to fly (pun intended) under the mainstream radar.
Unlike its stage siblings, you won't see the Disney name in lights above the Brooks Atkinson Theatre's marquee. In fact, you'll have to dig into the Playbill's fine print to notice the Disney Theatrical Productions credit. That doesn't mean, though, that the Mouse has anything to hide. On the contrary, Peter and the Starcatcher is one of the most refreshingly unique, if distinctly un-Disney, works that Mickey has ever helped make.
I went into a preview performance of the play last Friday night without ever having read the book series, penned by authors Ridley Pearson (creator of the Kingdom Keepers series) and Dave Barry, upon which the show is based. So I can't say how faithful playwright Rick Elice's adaptation is to the original work. From what I gather, the storyline is roughly similar, though the tone is mostly much more lighthearted.
The story centers around Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), an annoyingly intelligent English girl, and her father Lord Aster (Rick Holmes), who sail across the sea to protect a trunk of precious treasure for Queen Victoria. On board, she befriends an abused nameless orphan known only as Boy (Adam Chanler-Berat), who is being sold into slavery. Our heroes are pursued by the foul, foppish pirate Black Stache (Christian Borle), who is after Aster's cargo of magical "starstuff". When their boat The Never Land shipwrecks on a tropical island ruled by the warlike Fighting Prawn (Teddy Bergman), Molly and the Boy must band together to defeat Stache and save the treasure.
It isn't until well into to the second act, when a hirsute mermaid christens the Boy "Pan" and Stache looses his hand, that the audience realizes the show is a prequel to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, much as Wicked is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz. Along the way, we witness the origin of familiar characters like Tick-Tock and Tinkerbell, though always with an unexpected twist. By the end, we understand where Neverland gets its magic from, and Peter and his Lost Boys are ready to begin their beloved adventures.
Other Disney Broadway musicals are renowned for their scale and spectacle, but Peter and the Starcatcher's production style is breathtakingly bare bones. In fact, I frequently found myself wondering why (financial motives aside) it's on Broadway at all, since the stripped-down staging would be more at home on an Off-Broadway or Fringe Festival stage. Directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers (with movement by Steven Hoggett) have crafted a crazy-quilt blend of Peter Brook-esque avant garde ensemble work -- only 12 performers play dozens of characters, both animate and inanimate -- and broad comedy in the tradition of British music hall pantomime.
Designer Donyale Werle's set, greatly enhanced by Jeff Croiter evocative lighting, consists of little more than rough-hewn boards and a rolling staircase. The most important prop is a simple length of rope, which in the hands of the cast can become a ship's railing, the churning ocean, or a crocodile's snapping jaws. Peter and the Starchatcher isn't strictly a musical, though Wayne Barker's sporadic songs help move the story along, and the entracte includes an outrageous cross-dressing kickline.
Some may find the script's frequent injection of pop-culture anachronisms objectionable, but I found the sense of irreverent anarchy exciting. Borle's Stache is the clear standout among the talented cast, chewing the scenery in a virtuoso display of camp villainy worthy of Dr. Frank N. Furter. The only off note comes in the ending, when the show (despite Molly's repeated tirades against "sentimentality") reaches for an emotional depth that wasn't quite earned. Still, when we realize the girl's future destiny, I confess to getting the sniffles.
If you go to Broadway to be overwhelmed by elaborate effects and epic scores, this show probably isn't for you. But if you want to be surprised at how daringly unconventional a Disney show can be, Peter and the Starcatcher deserves to be on your theatre wish-list next time you take a trip to Times Square.