News Column

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher flies high

August 26, 2013


Aug. 26--Hollywood and cable television have become obsessed with origin stories.

Today's TV and movie screens are filled with back stories on superheroes and prequels of any number of fran-chises. "Reboot" is now a common term, not saved just for computers and dead phones.

Broadway is not immune to this either. "Wicked," for example, was and is hailed as a masterpiece for a variety of reasons.

Out of that idea comes "Peter and the Starcatcher," a play billed as an "adult prequel to Peter Pan," according to the press and promotional materials. That may be the simplest way to explain the premise of this amazing little play, but there is so much more to it.

Winner of five Tony Awards, including set and sound design, "Peter and the Star Catcher" is currently playing at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. These shows mark the start of a national tour for the Broadway production.

"Starcatcher" is based on a book by the same name, which was written as a prequel to author James Barrie's "Peter Pan." Developed as a bedtime story by writer Rick Elice in 2004, it's an honest and very funny effort to give context to the classic tale, which, when you think about it, makes no sense at all.

"Starcatcher" is told with a small cast and minimal set design and has just two musicians for sound, who sit in plain sight above the stage. Cast members play multiple roles with small props against spare but incredibly beautiful backdrops. It's a style closer to improvisation or old-time theater, relying on narration, small props and sound effects rather than, say, massive pirate ships and dense jungle sets.

The directors have purposefully avoided wires for flying and massive ships for pitched battles, replacing them with toys and high energy and commitment from the very talented touring cast.

All of this is done with the idea of tapping into the audience's imagination, a major theme of Barrie's works. Viewers have to let themselves believe what they are told they are seeing and, in doing so, let the story wash over them.

And what a story it is.

Told with sharp dialogue and delivered rapid fire, the play is incredibly funny and well-paced. It covers why Peter can fly, how Captain Hook lost his hand and who the Lost Boys really are. But while "Starcatcher" is a prequel, it doesn't get hung up on the source material with throwaway lines paying lip service to Barrie's work, choosing instead to weave dizzying wordplay with innovative storytelling for increasingly fun results.

The real question about the show is if it is appropriate for children. The theater recommends it for those 10 and up with a note about fog and strobe lights for fair warning. I hardly noticed either stage effect, but I would probably agree for the most part that it's not a play for young children simply because of the dialogue I have written about so glowingly. The play is almost entirely talking and includes some very obscure and hilarious references that I am not sure all the adults caught.

I laughed really hard in a silent theater at a joke about the America's Cup yacht race, while lines like: "as evocative as a madeleine in a Proust novel" seemed to go over pretty much everyone's head, mine included, until I got onto a computer.

But for every joke like those, there were several slapstick and children's humor moments as well as timely pop culture references. With that contrast, it's not hard to paint the show in the same colors as say a Pixar movie, which also has a wide range of humor bubbling under the surface.

Basically, if you are taking your child to this show with the thought of something with elegant costumes and a basic Disney plot, you are likely to walk out early with a very confused little one.

If, on the other hand, you like innovative storytelling in a surprisingly intimate venue, Starcatcher" is an excellent way to spend an evening in Denver.


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