BY SANDY STAGGS
Don’t be fooled by the facade of simplicity in Greenville Little Theatre’s “Peter and the Starcatcher.” This boisterous tour de force about the “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” is a rib-tickling adventure that is both blissfully theatrical and epic in its restraint of high-tech high jinks.
Winner of five Tony awards, this adaptation by Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”) of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s best-selling novel is a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s century-old “Peter Pan and Wendy” tale and strives to answer all our questions about the origin of the flying boy from Neverland.
In the madcap mode of Greg Banks’ “Robin Hood,” the ensemble of 12 actors dispense with the fourth wall immediately and become raconteurs and performers of some 100 roles (and a handful of songs scored by Wayne Barker) in this fantastical yarn set in 1885 as two ships, the speedy Wasp and the older Neverland, set sail for the remote kingdom of Rundoon.
Each vessel contains an identical trunk – one is a decoy and the other is precious cargo belonging to Queen Victoria herself, and filled with magical Starstuff and entrusted for safekeeping by Her Majesty to Lord Aster (a cordial, convincing Ian Hendrix). Aster is accompanied on the voyage (albeit on separate ships) by his 13-year-old daughter and Starcatcher-in-training Molly, played Emily Grove, and her nanny Mrs. Bumbrake (brilliantly embodied by Jon Kilpatrick).
Aboard the Neverland, which is helmed by a devilishly devious Sam McCalla as Captain Slank, Molly encounters a trio of enslaved orphans: the eternally-hungry Ted (Cory Granner), the spineless Prentiss (Carter Allen), and a sad lad known only as Boy (Christopher Paul Smith), who is later christened Peter Pan.
Of course, as in any good swashbuckling saga, mutiny and mayhem ensue as the pirate Black Stache (Evan Harris), who has seized command of the Wasp, and Capt. Slank each attempt to seize the trunks on their boats with an expectation of treasure. But before anyone can say “Shiver me timbers,” a hurricane swirls the action and the actors to Mollusk Island in Act 2, where the fantastical elements take flight and wistfully expound the Barrie universe.
Smith, whom theatre patrons may have caught as Jerry (opposite another Peter) in Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” last summer at The Warehouse Theatre, gives a most solicitous performance as Peter Pan. With his boyish demeanor and charm, he lends an even-keeled melancholy to the orphan who just wants to be a boy and carefree for a time, but radiates strength and courage when it comes to being a hero.
Grove, in her finest outing since playing a nanny with the power of flight herself in “Mary Poppins” last season, rises above a sea of men to pull pulls off adolescence assuredly and with supreme wit. Molly is multilingual and speaks not only in an English accent, but also the dodo language (after the extinct bird) and later in the play demonstrates her knowledge of Norse code. No not Morse code, but the ancient code of the Vikings, which Grove, never one toot her own Vertubenflugen, expresses in one of the absolute funniest sequences in the play. Brava!
Harris, one of GLT’s most durable and versatile repertory performers, bodes well as the hapless villain who is prone to seasickness and constantly spouts more malapropisms than Archie Bunker. Harris is a master of physical comedy and handily devours this role, which is more Captain Jack Sparrow (or Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove) than the future Captain Hook.
And Kilpatrick, who is no stranger to drag roles on stage — “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” Dr. Frank-N-Furter in “The Rocky Horror Show” and soon-to-be Edna (“I’m trying to iron, here!”) Turnblad in the upcoming GLT production of “Hairspray” in May — is an absolute delight and scene-stealer as Mrs. Bumbrake. Molly’s escort who spends more time being courted by the great (and nearly unrecognizable) Shane Willimon’s flatulent Alf than actually being an au pair.
This cast also features the talents of Sterling Street as the noble and suave Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the real-life Antarctic explorer who perished in 1912; Brian Coker as Stache’s dim-witted first-mate; and Todd A. Jansenn as among other parts, Fighting Prawn, the ruler of Mollusk Island whose vocabulary is entrenched in Italian culinary terms.
Interwoven with the frenetic pacing and cheeky contemporary references (Starstuff nor Starbucks!) that fly by lightning-fast, are wonderfully silly musical numbers like the showstopper opening the second act “Mermaid Outta Me.” I will leave this one to your imagination.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” does require some effort on part on its audience, not only a suspension of disbelief in regards to “found” props and minimal moving set pieces and devices used to frame the settings, sometimes accomplished with a simple rope. The first act, in particular, moves swiftly between the two ships and requires some alertness, but the second act is all glee and giddiness.
But that’s not to say, there isn’t plenty of scenery to chew including Ryan Bradburn’s truly spectacular stone proscenium with a nautical theme, his massive ship set, as well as a stage curtain entirely made of patchwork quilt.
GLT Executive Artistic Director Allen McCalla is in the director’s seat for this work that is solidly and beautifully realized and, with its cargo hull of sound and lighting cues, a most complex production more on par with a big-budget musical than a stage play. The spirited cast has looseness and carefree quality that looks improvised during the many shenanigans, but is always systemically reined in by McCalla.
The wonderful lighting by Graham Shaffer (oftentimes whimsical as fairy dust) and Thomas Brooks’ imaginative costumes (many handmade from found objects) and accessories (the umbrellas, for instance) both presage the Disney green hues of Peter Pan to come.
And just like “Wicked,” the final scenes succinctly wrap up the proceedings and set the stage for the characters to pounce in “Wendy and Peter Pan.”
Though there are a couple of slightly suggestive lines of dialogue that will go right over the little ones’ heads, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is appropriate for most ages.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” continues through March 12 with shows Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Greenville Little Theatre, 444 College Street in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 233-6238 or http://www.greenvillelittletheatre.org.