Review: ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ At Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia

Walnut Street Theatre rocked with laughter tonight. The Pirate King, Black Stache, was arguing with his mate, Smee, concerning a severed. . .oh well you have to see it. It was like old time vaudeville with superb timing and interaction between two master comedians.

Aaron Cromie and Ian Merrill Peakes. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Aaron Cromie and Ian Merrill Peakes. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The two performers, Ian Merrill Peakes, (Stache) and Aaron Cromie, (Smee), held the audience in the palms of their hands. This occurred numerous times; especially when Peakes addressed the audience, commenting of such subjects at the Walnut Street Theatre itself, and parking problems.

Black Stache is actually a prequel to Captain Hook – the villain of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. As portrayed by Peakes, he is a combination of Noel Coward, Richard the Third, and Groucho Marx. He has the ability to take a simple line such as “Oh my God” and turn it into a Handel aria. This is one funny performance.

The play in question is “A Grown up Prequel to Peter Pan” called Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice, based on the best selling children’s novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. In this version, a group of orphans find themselves trapped in a ship’s hold, chased by pirates searching for a treasure. In the second act the entire cast; pirates, sailors, mermaids and cannibals are shipwrecked together on a jungle island. Through all the adversity, the heroes, especially the ones named Boy and Molly, grow into stronger more mature individuals.

Elise’s play is sillier than the novel; there is a good dose of British “pantomime,” for example, but it wisely eschews the hugeness that Peter Pan demands. No realistic sets, green laser beams or flying children, for example. This version owes much to the “story theater” tradition, in the manner of the granddaddy of them all, Nicholas Nickleby. Actors break character to narrate lines from the novel, and then relaunch into a new scene.

The Ensemble of 'Peter and the Starcatcher.' Photo by Mark Garvin.
The Company of ‘Peter and the Starcatcher.’ Photo by Mark Garvin.

Todd Edward Ivins’ scenic design for this production is an attic filled with theatrical props. It is a huge attic with lofts, ladders and many stairs, (more of a barn actually). The actors seize the props as needed, even if they are must be used in an unexpected way. For example, a picture frame is used as a deck-hatch, or a flashlight becomes the eye of a crocodile. This allows the scenes to change instantly. With its many levels and playing areas, the attic makes a very convincing ship, though the island milieu is totally left to the imagination.

Mary Folino’s costumes are appropriate to Peter Pan with the characters gradually taking on the familiar garb of Barrie’s play. The lighting by J. Dominic Chacon is quick-change and theatrical with effective use of cyclorama backing, stage smoke, and a ceiling covered with antique chandeliers.

The cast is fantastic. The ensemble members play many roles in addition to storytellers, and merge into the hundreds of smaller roles easily. Alex Bechtel is a stately, heroic captain (he also the musical supervisor), while Nichalas L. Parker plays many roles, among them a hilarious native chief. The older female characters are handled by Dave Jadico in true “panto” style. The actors are also musician/singers, and give Wayne Barker’s wonderful music a hardy rendering. Though not a musical, there are songs and music a-plenty.

Dave Jadico, Alex Bechtel and Matthew Mastronardi. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Dave Jadico, Alex Bechtel and Matthew Mastronardi. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The leading roles of Boy and Molly, are well played by Brandon O’Rourke and Michaela Shuchman. They are strong physical and vocal performers, who bring a lot of charm to their scenes together. Growth is not exactly a forte of these performances. Do we ever doubt that Boy will conquer the evil ones? Never. Will Molly finally become a true starcatcher? Absolutely. These kids are so strong and attractive that we’ll probably be seeing them in an action series on television next year.

Director Bill Van Horn has wisely chosen to overlook the famous Broadway staging which was fascinating in its use of innovative techniques, some inspired by Asian Theatre. With only 4 weeks until dress rehearsals, (unlike the 2 or more years that developed the original production), Van Horn has opted for a more traditional story theater rendition with few surprises. This throws the emphasis onto the story, which, as it is a good play, is a good thing.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes.

Peter and the Starcatcher plays through May 1, 2016 at The Walnut Street Theatre – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 574-3550, or purchase them online.

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Neal Newman
Over the past 40 years, Neal Newman has directed extensively in classical, Shakespeare, modern theater, musicals, and opera. He trained as an actor at California State University, and trained in Shakespeare at ACT of San Francisco. He trained as a director at Carnegie Mellon, and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. He directed many Off-Broadway productions in New York, ran a summer stock company, and directed five seasons of Shakespeare in the Park in Philadelphia, and many opera and Gilbert & Sullivan productions. He was a New York Critic for Show Business Magazine for 7 years, and has written for many local papers and websites. He is co author of 'GOLDILOCKS AND THE DOWN HOME BEARS' presented at Steel River Playhouse, and will soon present a reading of the new musical 'LITTLE PRINCESS.'



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