Friday, September 23, 2016

Before Peter sang "I've gotta crow": Phoenix Theatre opens season with "Peter and the Starcatcher"

In "Peter and the Starcatcher," there is no call to the audience to assert its belief in fairies as a device for setting up a happy ending. That heart-tugging moment in J.M. Barrie's play becomes, in this prequel to "Peter Pan," an unspoken creed, the foundation of its magical properties.

The implied, fresh proposal in Rick Elice's play is to avow a belief in friendship, even such an unlikely one as that between a nameless orphan boy and an aristocratic girl.

Phoenix Theatre  opened its production of "Peter and the Starcatcher" Thursday night on the Russell Stage. It's an adventure at sea, animated by piratical plotting, exotic destinations and stratagems to reach them, mix-ups of cargo, crews, and captives. All of this bodies forth in an elaborate blend of drama and narrative, some of it involving choral speaking, making the show a fine-tuned ensemble triumph.

Bryan Fonseca directs a large cast loaded with familiar Phoenix faces and voices that delightfully channel the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson upon which Elice based his play. Songs by Wayne Barker, performed to recorded accompaniment, are threaded throughout. As seen Thursday, they galvanize the stage action and enhance its charm, but not to the extent that "Peter and the Starcatcher" can be considered a musical.

What stands out most is the vigor and comic brio of the spoken  language. It ranges from the billing and cooing of Alf and Mrs. Bumbrake (Michael Hosp and John Vessels Jr.), through the fraught and tender dialogue of Molly Aster, the precocious upper-class daughter Molly (Phebe Taylor), and the Boy who becomes Peter (Nathan Robbins), to the preening grandiloquence (flecked with puns and malapropisms)  of the pirate chief Black Stache (Eric J. Olson).

Molly is doubtful of the attention she'll get from the smitten Mrs. Bumbrake.
James Gross' shipshape set brings us on board immediately in the first act and easily suits the more abstract realization of Mollusk Island in the second, introduced to us with a Busby Berkeley-style mermaid chorus. This is where the magic of "star stuff" is usefully deployed with heroic pluck to defeat the island's predatory monster and neutralize the dastardly designs of Black Stache.

In the technical department, the production comes up to the mark in both acts through the work of Jeffery Martin, Zac Hunter and Tom Horan. Emily McGee's virtuoso gamut of props and costumes — comprising upper-class Victorian garb, tattered hand-me-downs for the orphan boys, fanciful approximations of native island outfits, and pirate haute couture for Black Stache— complete the picture.

The story falls into place unerringly from among the scattered elements at the outset. Some imaginative assembly is required, as in all good stories for all ages. The grown-ups faithfully represent traits that cause the Boy who will become Peter to hate them all.  The quest for leadership among the childhood peer group, finessed by the feistiness and special powers of Molly, stops well short of a "Lord of the Flies" outcome. Our sympathies, as Barrie himself ordained in his original, remain steadily with the younger generation.

Peter considers the view he's getting of matters from Black Stache.
The ensemble strengths are so consistent in this show that it's almost misleading to highlight outstanding individual performances, but I shall mention a few nonetheless. His voice ranging from shouts to soft insinuations, Olson was in full command of his character's balance of the menacing and the ridiculous. Ian Cruz's brilliant evocation of Third World resentment as Fighting Prawn struck all the right notes of caricature as well.

Phebe Taylor's Molly had the consistent zest and resoluteness the character needs to make the starcatcher device much more than a handy advantage over her peers. Finally, I have to say that, after several shows, there's something about seeing Nathan Robbins onstage that just makes me happy. Even when he plays characters with a dark side (as in "Hand to God"), he embodies the irrepressible tendency of youth to find a way to come out on top, to crow his triumph aloft and encourage everybody to share in it.

"Peter and the Starcatcher" in this production sounds the notes that led early reviewers to rebuke those who looked down on the original as a children's play. "Fools and slow of heart!," wrote one of them in the Boston Transcript (1929), the favorite newspaper of the Boston brahmins: "It is middle age's own tragicomedy— the faint, far memories of boyhood and girlhood blown back in the bright breeze of Barrie's imagination." In this show's prequel scenario, the breeze may waft over a longer distance and with more madcap gusts, but it still touches our 21st-century cheeks, some of which will doubtless bear the trace of tears at the end.