BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
A wonderful time for one and all, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a magical show in every radiant way.
Opening Wednesday at New York Theatre Workshop, this dramatization of the 2004 novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson about Peter Pan’s origins creatively blends fine storytelling, acting, atmospherics and visuals into a marvelous experience.
Cunningly adapted by Rick Elice as a story-theater work in which a dozen actors morph into some 50 characters, the Victorian-era yarn relates how Peter came into being, thanks to a plucky tween lass named Molly and their seafaring adventures involving a mysterious chest glowing with curious treasure.
Pirates, orphans, natives, mermaids and a gigantic crocodile populate a two-act tale teeming with dastardly doings, epic chases, daring escapes, shipwreck and plenty of funny business. Imaginatively co-directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, the beautifully-designed production offers truly enchanting entertainment for family audiences.
Mixing anachronistic humor slyly aimed for adults with compelling storytelling sure to grip youngsters, Elice’s complex text aptly suggests old-time British music hall traditions. Sprightly quasi-period music by Wayne Barker accompanies the action.
Among the show’s numerous comical highlights is a come-hither song warbled by a mad chorus line of mermaids resplendent in fishtail drag fancifully crafted from found objects by costume designer Paloma Young.
Designer Donyale Werle frames the swashbuckling events within a gaudy proscenium arch of yesteryear and fills the stage with nautical fragments and jungle greenery. Several feet of rope are used fluently by the actors to create doorways and evoke tight spaces while – in one striking moment – a double line of cordage is hung with triangular pennants to simulate the chomping teeth of that monster crocodile. The sharply focused lighting by Jeff Croiter effectively serves the story’s many fast shifts in place and mood.
The energetic physicality of the performers is matched by their colorful characterizations. A greasepaint mustache festooning his lip, Christian Borle drolly portrays a posturing pirate king with rolling eyes and a sneering smile. Initially an unassuming urchin, Adam Chanler-Berat nicely wises up into Peter Pan. A dashing Karl Kenzler infuses Molly’s aristocratic dad with a kindly nature. Arnie Burton is all coy ladylike gentility as Molly’s doughty nurse and later pops up as a salmon transformed into a sea goddess.
Best of all, there’s Celia Keenan-Bolger’s winning performance as smart, spunky Molly who easily holds her fearless own among the otherwise all-male crew. Watching little pinafore-clad Molly deal so capably with all of the ridiculous men swarming around her is likely to be inspirational for every young girl who watches her do it. The streak of feminist strength that pervades the play is noteworthy and admirable.
Running at two hours and 20 minutes, the bustling proceedings would benefit from a bit of scissoring but aside from sagging briefly in the middle of its second act, the show never ceases to delight and amaze. The play was commissioned by Disney Theatrical Productions, but the relatively modest off-Broadway scale of New York Theatre Workshop’s wonderfully organic incarnation makes its magic all the more charming.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” continues through April 3 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., New York. Call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.nytw.org.