A crocodile that ticks. A pirate crew led by a captain with a hook for a hand. A boy that lives forever. The story of Peter Pan has become a part of our cultural canon. Originally written by author J.M. Barrie and popularized by the 1953 Disney film, the tale has been examined and translated into an unlimited number of forms. Want to know what happens when Peter grows up? Watch Spielberg’s “Hook.” Live-action translation of the Disney film? The 2003 film “Peter Pan” fits the bill perfectly. Have a thing for literary web series? Youtube’s “The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy” has you covered. However, Theatre Charlotte’s production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a play based off of the 2004 novel “Peter and the Starcatchers,” offers something new. It seeks to explain how Peter, Neverland and the infamous Captain Hook came to be. Even better, it does so on stage.
The play begins with a simple set-up. Two ships, The Neverland and The Wasp, are bound to Rundoon. The Wasp, a fast-moving British ship, will carry Lord Aster (Troy Feay) and an important trunk, property of Queen Victoria. The other, The Neverland, shall take a slower and less precarious route to Rundoon. It carries Lord Aster’s daughter, Molly (Ailey Finn), her nanny (Johnny Hohenstein), three orphan boys sold into slavery and a motley crew of seamen supposedly transporting an identical trunk full of sand. The key: the trunks were switched by the crew of The Neverland. And the one containing Queen Victoria’s treasure? It actually carries starstuff, a magical substance made of fallen stars that will transform what it touches into “what they want to be.” Lord Aster and Molly are later revealed to be Starcatchers on a mission to destroy the starstuff before it can fall into the hands of those who would use it for evil.
However, this description ignores two of the most central characters in the show. The first is an orphan boy with no name (Patrick Stepp). One of three orphans sold into slavery on the ship, The Boy is a quiet and angry force. While he desperately wants a home and family, he is also extremely (and understandably) distrustful of adults, who have done nothing but abandon and abuse him in the past. His growing friendship with Molly becomes a central focus of the play, in which he finds purpose in their mission to save the starstuff and learns the importance of friendship. It is this Boy that will transform into the iconic Peter Pan. The other side of the coin is Dave Blamy as Black Stache. A “ruthless” pirate who leads his crew in a takeover of The Wasp, Black Stache is a comedic force with a penchant for poetry and theatrics. Desperate for the trunk he believes to hold Queen Victoria’s treasure, he and his crew head straight for The Neverland. There, they duel as their ships collide in a tremendous storm before The Neverland sinks and its occupants are forced to flee to safety by swimming/floating to a nearby island.
The cast here is incredible and really works to elevate the source material. Stepp and Finn play well off of each other as leads and their banter feels genuine. It can be hard to take on a role as iconic as Peter Pan, but Stepp really commits and makes it believable, even if this Peter is different than the one the audience knows from Disney. Jesse Pritchard as Prentiss and A.J. White as Ted complete the group of children and provide some solid comic relief. The head of comedy, however, is Black Stache and Smee (Jeff Powell). Blamy as Black Stache is simultaneously channeling Christian Borle incredibly hard while making the character his own. He is laugh-out-loud funny and only improved by Powell’s excellent comedic timing and support. It works, and it works well.
Serious acknowledgment needs to go to the creative team behind “Peter” as well. The set simultaneously is fairly large and adds an immediate “pirate” feel to the stage while providing the space for imaginative stagings and the use of cast members as part of the set. The use of lighting to set scenes in various places (such as the jungle, in the bowels of ships, or underwater) and control the tone cannot be understated. Lightning flashes and eyes glow in the dark. Jill Bloede’s direction stands out especially in the staging of a scene in which Molly trails Alf (UNCC Alum Bowen Abbey) deep into the ship. They crawl under gradually-lower strings to indicate deeper parts of the boat and she opens doors by turning cast members to face her, which immediately spring into action creating various scenes of pirate life (such as gambling and torture). A scene in which the characters collectively get separated and lost while running in the jungle is also especially memorable for its staging and execution.
However, the show is not without its flaws. It attempts to hit a middle ground, balancing comedy with an emotional story about friendship, family and growing up. “Peter” is far more successful at the former. The best part of the show is the two-minute musical number that opens Act Two, featuring the cast as fish recently turned into mermaids. It is an excellent example of comedy in a musical number and hits every beat it needs to. Yet, “Peter’s” attempts at emotional resolution just don’t completely hit, as if they missed by a centimeter or two. This isn’t any fault of the actors. It is a writing issue, as the pace moves incredibly quickly in some places (the Peter and Molly friendship/relationship suffers from this) or much too slow (the first half of the first act). The dialogue around the more poignant topics also feels stuffy and like the play is trying too hard to hammer home its point. This is only more obvious when the lines are spoken by characters that are meant to be children. The problem is disappointing considering how great “Peter” handles comedy and lighthearted fun.
Despite its flaws, “Peter and the Starcatcher” excels at comedy and provides a fun night at the theater. It can entertain children and adults alike through an imaginative and whimsical plot, a great technical team and the interactions of its cast. All of the actors are having fun here and it shows. Furthermore, it is a solid exploration of the origins of Peter Pan. It addresses most of the details, such as how Captain Hook lost his hand, why Peter never ages and how the crocodile started ticking like a clock. This is a solid start to Theatre Charlotte’s 91st season. I’m excited to see what the rest of it brings.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is currently playing at Theatre Charlotte. Dates are Sept. 12-16 and 19-23, while times vary. Tickets are $28.