by Richard Dodds
Peter and the Starcatcher is the slow boat to Neverland. Not that what's on stage at the Curran is in any way sluggish; quite the opposite is true. This touring edition of the New York hit is energized to the point of mania, its cast like the social directors on a drifting cruise ship trying to distract the guests with endless variations on the same antic humor. A wonderfully bizarre musical number opens the second act, presaging that the vessel is charting a new course, but that promise is illusory. It's all aboard for more fart jokes, puns, increasingly wrongheaded anachronisms, and a frantically rendered, complex plot that doesn't earn its length.
Adapted from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's novel that provides a backstory for Peter Pan, the action unfolds as if a vagabond band of Victorian-era actors has taken over an old theater and must use abandoned stage detritus for any sets and props, and their own imagination for special effects. As adapted for the stage by Rick Elice, and directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, it's a concept that is easy to embrace, but you may find it hard to gain release from the returned embrace.
There are moments that recur throughout the production that display laudable imagination. Strings of white pennant flags manipulated by actors on either side of the stage become the ominously oversized chomping teeth of the crocodile who will come to haunt Capt. Hook. There are laughs as the theater's imaginary fourth wall comes and goes, along with often-clever word play, and there is a definite gay streak that periodically appears.
But too many winks to the audience can become cloying, and the modern-day references become annoying when so arbitrarily inserted. On one hand, having a character try to speed up exposition by saying "people have paid for nannies and parking" is funny because it latches together the old and the new. But references to the America's Cup, Michael Jackson videos, and Philip Glass' atonal music bounce around like balls thrown to a missing catcher.
While Peter, an orphan with no name at the play's start, is the title character, the best role belongs to John Sanders as pirate nonpareil Black Stache. Prone to malapropisms, he may think a discussion has descended into "splitting rabbits." Perhaps he means "splitting hairs," another pirate tactfully suggests. You might see elements of John Cleese and Peter Sellers in Sanders' performance of fierce frolic as the future Capt. Hook. Another cast member who can command attention is Megan Stern as Molly, the girl who will eventually give birth to J.M. Barrie's Wendy. There is definitely grrrl power on the stage with Stern. As the boy who becomes Peter Pan, Joey deBettencourt gently connects with the play's most serious role.
There is enough humor and imagination in Peter and the Starcatcher for, say, 90 minutes of high-velocity, low-tech fun. According to my calculations, that makes this trip to Neverland about 75 minutes too long.
Peter and the Starcatcher will run at the Curran Theatre through Dec. 1. Tickets are $40-$160. Call (888) 746-1799.