In some interpretations, Peter Pan can come across as such a little brat — the ultimate perpetual adolescent that you wish would just grow up and get a clue.
But like many a good prequel, Peter and the Starcatcher tells us there’s more to the story. The desire to never grow up is not just the result of an immature wish to hold on to boyhood.
The Tony Award-winning play opened Friday night at the Lexington Opera House in a production where virtually everything worked beautifully, from the comic timing to the physical acting.
It all starts with a witty and deceptively wise script by Rick Elice, based on the book by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry — yes, that Dave Barry.
Peter (Bryan Welnicki), we learn, started as a no-name orphan, relegated to an orphanage where beatings were the norm and orphans were told they would never go to heaven. This place makes Miss Hanniagn’s Annie orphanage look loving and compassionate, particularly when the orphans are sold into slavery, essentially to be fed to a snake.
But on the ship, called The Neverland, they meet Molly (Aisling Halpin), the bright, talented and energetic girl — a girl! — who is a starcatcher in training.
Molly’s father (Andy Ingalls) is on another boat, The Wasp, which is quickly taken over by pirates led by a flamboyant buccaneer named Black Stache (Joe Beuerlein), for his substantial upper-lip facial hair. We can see very early where his character is going.
A wicked storm and landing on an island set the stage for events that lead up to the familiar Peter Pan story. But a cathartic musical drama a la Wizard of Oz prequel Wicked this is not. The play is often Monty Python silly, loaded with pop culture references, non sequiturs and an obliterated fourth wall. You have no trouble at all believing this sprung from the mind of Barry, though in an interview with the Herald-Leader, he and Pearson credited Elice with loading the stage version with jokes.
The cast of this production is up to the task, led by Beuerlein, who totally makes you forget you are not seeing Christian Borle’s Tony Award-winning performance in this role. He beautifully plays Stache as the fop who fancies himself frightening and carries off jokes like Stache’s … ummm … dismemberment with far more laughs than the scene seems to have deserved. Elice wrote the part brilliantly, but the role needs the right actor to deliver it. This is a star turn for Beuerlein.
Same for Halpin, whose Molly is the epitome of fetching tomboy, able to be a consensus leader and present Peter his greatest temptation to grow up.
The other key role is Smee, comic relief in Pan or this show, brilliantly played by Andrew Sklar.
As Peter, Welnicki is a straight man. But he also has the essential role of showing us why Peter never grew up. It’s heartbreaking. In him, we see the belief that adults lie and leave, and he wants the boyhood he never had. If a prequel works, you will never look at the original the same way again, and thanks to to Welnicki’s performance, I will never see Peter Pan quite the same.
Rarely do you see a show where blocking is so essential, but the stage movement in Peter and the Starcatcher is critical, and done with precision here. Note the scene where Molly looks behind multiple “doors” to find the “pigs.” Brilliant.
And I don’t want to give anything away, but if you go, make sure you are in your seats for the beginning of Act 2. It’s an absolute scream.
The Broadway series here and elsewhere is usually loaded with musicals, contemporary plays needing to find regional theaters to mount them. So it is a rare treat to see Peter and the Starcatcher, a play, in a national touring production including Broadway elements such as Kentucky native Darron L. West’s Tony Award-winning sound design.
It is great the show’s producers chose to tour this play and fantastic that the Opera House booked it. The only disappointment Friday was about as many empty seats as I have seen at a Broadway Live series opening night. If you enjoy entertaining, intelligent, creative theater, you need to see this production of Peter and the Starcatcher, which is here through Sunday.