Disappearing Broadway investments prove, especially this season, that there is still no formula for commercial success in the entertainment business, but the wicked track record of the prequel is really starting to stand out. Clearly, there is something extraordinarily potent about revealing, or positing, to an audience how we got to the starting point of some beloved and familiar story — say "The Wizard of Oz" or "Peter Pan." It seems to tap into some deep-seated primal need.
The power of the prequel — a power, by the way, that does not necessarily extend to the sequel, which can irritate fans by forcing a beloved story in new directions — was very much on display this week at "Peter and the Starcatcher," the new Broadway show adapted from the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson by the savvy scribe Rick Elice, and cannily directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers.
This piece, which has some music by Wayne Barker and stars Christian Borle ("Smash"), Celia Keenan-Bolger and Adam Chanler-Berat ("Next to Normal") offers one explantation of how J. M. Barrie's Lost Boys (strange creatures that they are) became so bereft of parents, and how Peter acquired the useful skill of never growing old. Indeed, "Peter and the Starcatcher" has an explanation for the innumerable other aspects of"Peter Pan,"including not only how Captain Hook became so hostile, but how he lost his mitt. You see the early moments of Tinkerbell getting to be Tink. You grasp why a boy could catch flight.
For much of its running time, the show has an unusual (especially in New York) reliance on story-theater, and walks a careful line between the innocent and the arch (on occasion, it falls off the narrow bridge). The style throughout is both heightened and overtly anachronistic, and it takes a while for the audience to embrace its particular brand of self-aware theatricality, even as a small but meaningful subsection of the public will, I think, remain in resistance.
But even though Rees and Timbers' direction, which has attitudinal echoes of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" in its bursts of episodic intensity, can seem twee, it benefits greatly both from the inherent wit of the source and of Elice's adaptation. And although the show wears its low-tech, retro, neo-vaudeville, pure-theater, use-your-imagination bona-fides on its sleeve — and methinks it occasionally doth protest too much against the unspoken antagonist of the Disney spectacle — it also has the benefit of the choreography of Steven Hoggett, the genius behind "Once" who can take a group of human bodies and make them do beautiful, extraordinary and yet strangely logical things. Very few choreographers have Hoggett's astounding ability to express heart though movement while blending prowess with the seemingly routine.
But "Peter and the Starcatcher" would not at all be the hit it seems likely to be if it didn't seem to unlock so much in the last few minutes, when we understand, as if for the first time, why Peter has this attraction to, and for, so many of the girls and women of the Darling family of London. The unusual but remarkable Keenan-Bolger is one of the very rare adult actresses — and she's no kid these days — who can operate effortlessly in the child-adult realm required by this show and, indeed, by Barrie's original book, a book far weirder than most people realize. Borle, a master stylist whose open sincerity comes with a slight but consistent dose of bathos-killing cynicism, is similarly adept, meaning that all there is left for Chanler-Berat to do is be a Boy on the way to something extraordinary, which he manages very nicely.
Keenan-Bolger's character of Molly — the one girl in a sea of boys — explains how this led to that, which led to this, and you can hear the audience let out a collective gasp of understanding, as if it had spent a lifetime wondering why Hook was that way, or why Smee was Smee. Some brilliant artists just rewound everyone to the beginning of childhood by providing revealing new information.
As the Brooks Atkinson Theatre — well, most of it — exploded in happiness last week, I was struck by how, in many ways, "Peter and the Starcatcher" is dangling that which we all crave the most: to be young again, but to be that way while knowing what we know now.
Only in the theater, alas.
"Peter and the Starcatcher" plays on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Call 877-250-2929 or visit PeterandtheStarcatcher.com.
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