Did the world need to know the back story of Peter Pan? No more so than we needed all those prequels to Star Wars. But iconic fictional tales are forever luring artists down the garden path or, in the case of Peter Pan, whose early days are recounted in Peter and the Starcatcher, on to the boundless blue.
Based on a similarly titled novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, this Peter gives us a nameless homeless boy and casts him out to sea and to a magical isle, where he undergoes a series of adventures that transform him into a hero. Disney Theatricals, which commissioned this stage version, enlisted the writer Rick Elice to adapt and the directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers to, more crucially, reduce the saccharine factor.
Timbers has been cutting a Captain Hookish swath through off-Broadway lately: insufficiently old-school to be camp, yet too sarcastic to be hearty, his staging of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was a highlight of last season. That adaptation, though, was in essence a raucous historical pageant that could slice through the story. Peter and the Starcatcher has too much narrative to get by on attitude alone. This means, unfortunately, the first act features an often exhausting mixture of exposition and cleverness. Two ships, The Wasp and The Neverland, set sail, the former with pirates and the latter commanded by Lord Leonard Aster, whose Queen Victoria-approved mission involves a chest full of Starstuff: a kind of magic plutonium, whose disposal is crucial to the continued wellbeing of the planet.
Aster’s daughter, Molly, who befriends the Peter figure, is the kind of self-sufficient female that 21st-century children’s stories must contain. Winningly portrayed by Celia Keenan-Bolger, Molly is a revisionist extension of the cosy Victorian feminism reflected in so many plays of Peter Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie.
Donyale Werle’s brilliant set, playing off dark ropes and riggings in act one and with a bright, plastic concept – an avant-garde Little Mermaid – in act two, provides the cast, led by the high-octane Christian Borle as the pirate king, with a veritable playground. The handful of musical numbers, including an undergraduates-in-drag mermaid frolic, were written by Wayne Barker. The music provides welcome relief from the too often frantic production.