Peter and the Starcatcher

April 04, 2017
Written by: Brian Pope
Published by: Pittsburgh in the Round

How does one continue the timeless story of a boy who never grows up?

Steven Spielberg’s Hook notwithstanding, the obvious answer to that question is to explore his past.

And that’s just what Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson did in the 2006 YA novel Peter and the Starcatcher. Their incredible success with the book series (surely due to their respect for the incredibly rich source material) led playwright Rick Elice to adapt their work into a charmingly meta and humorous stage play of the same name. Since its 2009 premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, Starcatcher has wowed New York and national audiences with the wit of its craftsmanship and the universality of its themes.

Pitt Stages’s current production, docked at the Charity Randall Theater, may torpedo Wayne Barker’s musical score but it undoubtedly soars straight on ‘til morning in almost every other aspect.

Before the green getup—in the 1885 British Empire—Peter Pan had no home and no name. Still reeling from a traumatizing stint in an orphanage, the Boy once again finds himself trapped by circumstance. This time, he’s a prisoner on a ship called Neverland with his two best friends, Ted and Prentiss. Little do they know that, above deck, the ship’s captain Bill Slank has masterminded a devious switcheroo that mistakenly lands a great treasure on his vessel rather than on the majestic Wasp.

This is good news for no one. Not for Lord Aster who was tasked by the Queen herself (God save her!) to protect the mysterious and mystical “starstuff” that lies within the treasure chest. Not for the bumbling band of pirates, led by the silly and sinister Black Stache, who commandeer the Wasp to steal the treasure.

As a starcatcher-in-training working to safeguard the power of starstuff (the ability to realize the dreams of anyone who possesses it), Aster’s young, confident, and wildly adventurous daughter Molly takes it upon herself to complete her father’s mission. After she ditches her shrieking governess Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly begins to explore the ship. There are horrors and delights aplenty aboard the Neverland but nothing like the company of her peers, alike in age and disposition. Jockeying for leadership of the team all the while, the lost boys and Molly work together to thwart Black Stache’s dastardly plans.

Eventually, the stage is set for J.M. Barrie’s classic tale to play out. But a litany of unexpected starboard and port twists and turns will leave you and our heroes on the edge of the plank throughout.

While the magical exploits of the Aster family are dazzling, I strongly believe that the real starcatcher at the center of this production is director Kathryn Markey. She has assembled a spirited crew of actors brimming with talent and infectious enthusiasm. It’s rare to see performers clearly having so much fun while expertly navigating such intricate design and staging.

Imagine my surprise when I perused my playbill and found out that several members of the diverse 19-person ensemble were making their Pitt Stages acting debuts. That’s proof that these actors aren’t just stars on the rise, but also shooting stars.

Brightest among them are Tanner Prime, Molly Balk, and Dennis Schebetta. Like the play, their performances truly set sail in Act II. Prime’s adorable pluckiness and vulnerability make his character’s wish to never grow up seem like something we should all aspire to. As the Boy’s most colorful adversaries, Fighting Prawn and Black Stache, Balk and Schebetta showcase their unmatched charisma and sense of comedic timing.

Zachary Romah, Sabrina Rothschild, Alex Knapp, and Sean Gallagher also shine as pairs of Lost Boys and unlikely lovers, respectively.

In addition to crafting a versatile landscape evoking equal parts childlike wonder and workmanlike grit, scenic designer Gianni Downs should also be credited with providing Markey a lively canvas on which to paint her various thrilling stage pictures. Their work goes hand in hand—more like hand in rope, in this case—during all the show’s most action-packed moments. Markey channels the inherent whimsy of Starcatcher most potently when she seamlessly transforms her actors into doors, animals, and crashing ocean waves. Downs’s creative combination of hand-painted and hand-built pieces more than live up to Donyale Werle’s Tony-winning Broadway sets.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the sound design by Tyler Bensen or the costume design by KJ Gilmer. Both are plagued by a troubling sameness. It’s a problem when you can close your eyes and not be sure if you’re listening to the hiss of an angry housecat or the growl of a hungry crocodile. It’s a bigger problem when the iconic swashbuckling style of the man who will become Captain Hook is watered down to the point of resembling poor Captain Jack Sparrow cosplay.

Still, there is tons to admire in Pitt Stages’s Peter and the Starcatcher. Growing up doesn’t seem so bad if it means just aging the two and half hours of this energetic and touching production’s runtime. Believe me and fly your way over to the theater.

Peter and the Starcatcher runs through April 9th at the Charity Randall Theater. For more information, click here.

Thank you to Pitt Stages for the complimentary tickets.


PGH in the Round Review of Peter and the Starcatcher