REVIEW: SLT Catches a Star, Imagination in ‘Peter’ Pan Origin Story

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Holt McCarley is Peter in “Peter and the Star Catcher.” Photo by Thomas Koening

Star stuff is spilling all over the Chapman Cultural Center both metaphorically and literally as a cascade of stars stake, strut and strike magic on the stage in Spartanburg Little Theatre’s current play “Peter and the Starcatcher.”

Billed as a grown-up’s prequel to J. M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan tale, this production, directed with perceptive and imaginative flair by SLT longtime collaborator John Fagan, is a splendid whimsical display of fantastical storytelling that beckons the imagination of its audience as much of that of its exuberant, sparkling cast.

Based on the 2004 novel “Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the play was adapted for the stage by Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”) and won several creative Tony awards for its novel approach of deconstructed designs. “Peter” is the origin story and leads right up to the events and characters in Barrie’s original “Peter and Wendy” play and novel including Peter Pan, Mrs. Darling, Tinker Bell and Hook.

With turn of the century (the one before last) theatrical techniques, pantomime, vaudeville musical numbers, over the top comedic performances, a childlike spirit, and the simplest of props, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is really a throwback to the time of Barrie.

Wait! musical numbers? Is it a play or a musical? The answer is both. “Peter” is that rare hybrid: a play with a handful of musical compositions (by Wayne Barker). And yes, Spartanburg Little Theatre never disappoints in this arena with live music by musical director Karen Hampton and Nathan Erps on freaky percussion instruments.

The translation of this adventure to stage does get a bit expository, so I will break it down.

There are two ships bound for the remote island of Rundooooooooooon: The speedy Wasp and The casual cruiser Neverland. A trunk containing Queen Victoria’s “star stuff” is on one ship and a trunk full of sand is on the other, until they are switched at the last minute as a safety precaution. One boat is taken over by pirates and upon discovering they’ve been had, they attack the other boat to get their hands on the Queen’s trunk, then a hurricane breaks sending the inhabitants of both vessels (a crew of trope characters from all levels of British society) to the island where the real mayhem ensues.

Making his mark in Spartanburg in his third high-profile production in four months, Holt McCarley scores the title role and flies high for the occasion.  

McCarley, who first worked with Fagan in SLT’s “Cats” at as a teen some years ago, is direct from casting central: youthful boyish good looks, innocent tenacity, a heck of a voice (too though he doesn’t much time to show it off here as in his previous role in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum),” and winsome humility as Boy, the orphan/slave who hates grownups and has no name until he is anointed “Peter” by Molly, the spirited teenage Starcatcher apprentice and daughter of Lord Aster (Ian Hendrix in his SLT debut but second time in this role after playing Aster in the Greenville Theatre production in 2017).

Sarah Rackley, in her breakout role after honing her craft in summer Shakespeare productions with the Upstate Shakespeare Festival, is the only woman in this play (not the only female character, mind you). Rackley charms us with adolescent naiveté and spunk and even demonstrates her mastery of the Dodo language and Norse Code (in a hysterical riff on Rose Nylan’s Scandinavian gibberish on “The Golden Girls”).

Held captive along with Peter are his orphan pals and other Lost Boys: the spineless Prentiss (played by the spry and bouncy Charlie Hyatt), and the food-obsessed Ted, played by SLT newcomer Ryan Holub.

The ships’ crews are comprised of a who’s who in recent SLT history with the usual terrific suspects such as Ben Dawkins as the flatulent gruff sailor Alf,  who is smitten with Molly’s nanny Mrs. Bumbrake, played by the indelible Ryan Barry in a sidesplitting performance in a bonnet and apron; the ever-smiling Doug Egge as the cruel Captain Slank of the Neverland (and Hawking Clam); Benjamin Abrams just plain showing off in multiple roles such as devilishly devious schoolmaster Grempkin and Fighting Prawn, the fierce chief of the Mollusk Islanders who peppers his conversations with Italian cooking terms; Greenville actor Brian Reeder incredible makes his first long overdue SLT appearance as the Captain of the Wasp; and a Jolly Roger John Carino, in a fantastic, committed comical spin as Smee, the first mate to the story’s villain, Black Stache.

Dave LaPage, one of the Upstate’s finest actors is back at SLT in this coveted role after scoring major parts in Greenville and Anderson over the last year such as the narrator in “The Rocky Horror Show,” the Emcee in “Cabaret,” the lead in “Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?” and even a German transgender woman in an award-winning turn.  

“Peter” marks LaPage’s first foray into “villain” territory. And he revels in the flamboyance and measured malevolence of this evil, but essential nincompoop, pirate who is all stache and no bark, and riddled with Freudian slip and malapropisms, always correct by his matie, Smee. He definitely takes some inspiration from Jonny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, but this Black Stache is uniquely LaPage, though he does wears a less burly version of the manicured above-the-lip hair than the figure later known as Hook.

This is actually the fourth production of this play that I have reviewed and every time “Peter” gets tangled up in its own exposition near the end of Act One, when the action shifts among around the different areas of both ships and becomes hard to follow. The signs on the dueling stair towers that serve at the two ships’ deck are very helpful.

But, be patient my friend. The payoff is HUGE and it comes in the fantasy elements beginning with the Act Two opening number called “Mermaid Outta Me.” No spoilers, but obviously if there is only one woman in the cast… You get the picture and a whole lot more than you were asking for in this hilarious showstopper.

But don’t be fooled by the ragtag style, the tomfoolery, the multiple narrators, and this very British nostalgic style of storytelling. “Peter” demands much from its actors: their training, wit, timing, and spontaneity to pull this off this kind of drama/comedy.

And the show is handled by Fagan with beautiful, brilliant touches and imaginative choices such as the umbrellas, the sound of raindrops made just by the actors fingertips, Peter (or Boy in this scene) tumbling out of a cage (his cohorts’ arms), the toy ship models, and not to mention the nautical-themed gold carved proscenium created by scenic designer Tim Baxter-Ferguson.

The costumes by Elizabeth Gray are appropriate, rustic palettes for the pirate scenes and clever use of everyday objects for the mermaid costumes.

The lighting in “Peter and the Star Catcher” is by Peter Lamson. Cassandra Scott is Stage Manager.

 “Peter and the Starcatcher” continues through March 17, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Chapman Cultural Center, 200 East St. John Street in Spartanburg. For tickets, call (864) 542-ARTS or visit www.chapmanculturalcenter.org.

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