PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Peter and the Starcatcher, a Prequel That Really Flies
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Rick Elice's Peter and the Starcatcher, the origin-story of that boy named Pan.
For those of you who won't grow, can't grow up or never have grown up, Peter and the Starcatcher, which opened April 15 at the Brooks Atkinson could very well be your catch of the day. By all means, bring your inner child along.
This playful reworking of a fertile childhood fable — it is more retilling than retelling — pretends to be the backstory to Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, a fairy tale dashed off with his left hand by the otherwise prolific playwright J.M. Barrie, merely for the amusement of the five Llewelyn Davies boys who crossed his path. It went public, on stage, two days after Christmas in 1904 and has been charming generations ever since. If you think about it, there has to be a backstory, with this un-aging Eternal Boy who flies from London to Neverland, recruiting and enticing children with his infectiously adventurous fun and games.
So a modern, adult sensibility — two of them, in fact — were brought to bear on this legend, and the preliminary notes came forth as a Disney-published book in 2004 titled "Peter and the Starcatchers," plural. Only one starcatcher is dealt with on Broadway, so the two authors bravely ventured forth to see what gives.
"This is the first time I've ever been to a premiere," confessed Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and humorist and, in a pinch, presidential contender. "I'm here because I'm co-author, with this guy here" — he pointed to Ridley Pearson behind him — of the book that this show is based on.
"His daughter, Paige, asked him how Captain Hook met Peter Pan — she was five at the time — and then Ridley was visiting me and said, 'Paige had an idea. Maybe we can write a book.' We don't write children's books but we thought, 'Maybe together we could do it,' and it ended up being this book. We created a backstory for the event. We have a backstory for Captain Hook. We explain how he lost his hand, and we explain how Peter Pan could fly, we explain how come he never grows old, we talk about where mermaids come from, we reach the creation of Tinkerbell."
Asked if he had seen the show, Barry drily responded: "Just a few times. Five years' worth. We saw it in workshop. We saw it in La Jolla. We saw it Off-Broadway."
Peter Pan, in the resultant edition, is a supporting player in the story of his life — a flawed lad not fully formed as a hero, still knotted in teen angst and not knowing how to handle a woman (okay, girl) who is smarter and braver than he is.
The real star of the show — top-billed, accordingly — slinks on with the whole ensemble and steps out from the herd, back to the audience, and paints on a black mustache that looks exactly like Groucho's in the early Marx Brothers movies. This would be the dastardly Black Stache — i.e., Captain Hook, back when he had two hands and wasn't being run ragged by a croc with a clock. He is played with unbridled bravado and without a net by the nervy, nutty Christian Borle.
Not only did the audience approve in spades, so did the authors. "I don't think either of us saw Hook that way, and it's perfect," said Barry. "It's the role of a lifetime, y'know. It's like Yul Brynner. It defines a new Captain Hook. He's reinvented the whole thing. It's amazing what he does, scene after scene after scene."
If you haven't already thought Wicked in its irreverent reexamination of storybook staples, you will think wicked in terms of the tone that adapter Rick Elice has affected, ticking the inner child alive and active with grown-up wit and puns and rude observations. And in the final section of the play, you pay adult fare for the prolonged recess. A melancholy cloud creeps over the play, as the pieces of the legend start falling into place and you begin to see the light of Peter Pan-as-we-know-him at the end of the tunnel. There's a heart-tug at not wanting this to end.
"I think the idea of endings is something we hate," Elice observed. "I worked for many years with Nancy Coyne's ad agency and would summer with her and her daughter Kate, who now works at People magazine. I've known Kate since she was eight and crushing on me very intensely. Every Sunday evening when it was time to leave, Katie would hide my shoes and say, 'I don't want you to leave. I don't want this to end.' I thought of her every day when I was writing the end of this play.
"But wouldn't it be sad if we didn't grow up? There's this Peter Pan Syndrome, and there are women devoted to men who refuse to take responsibility for their lives."
Co-directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, who skippered the show into a safe harbor after five and a half years, wore Naval caps to the after-party held at The McKittrick Hotel on West 27th Street, where Sleep No More normally spooks.
"I think this is a story about people eventually taking responsibility for their lives," opined Rees. "Peter actually learns to become Peter Pan, and it's a sweet-and-sour decision because Peter Pan will never have a family. He'll always be looking through the window at others. To be a boy forever is what perhaps we all wish for, but maybe it might not be as sweet as that. To take responsibility for your life is a good thing."
Both pooh-poohed the problems of co-directing. "It's been great," Timbers, in fact, said. "Roger and I come from very different backgrounds, but we like the same kinds of shows and have the same tastes. That helps us. I take things away from Roger, he takes things away from me. What has come out of it is my fondest collaboration."
Rees agreed. "We've both directed lots of other things, but working together — it's wonderful to have a buddy, there by your side when you can work something out. If things you've experienced in your directing days don't quite give you the answer, it's fantastic if you've got someone with you there. We've become such allies."
There was a third wheel calling the shots as well — Steven Hoggett, who is credited with Movement and keeps the show in a constant state of that (as he did with Once and Black Watch). "Steven's a choreographer and he is also a movement-stager," Timbers said. "He gave us a masculine, aggressive movement that was exactly what we needed for this. Sequences had been there for three years, and just having his eye on it to tune it up made everything so much better. He's going to be doing the fights for Rocky [the musical], and they are so realistic and exciting and terrifying. I just can't wait to work with him again."
Although Peter and the Starcatcher calls itself "a play-with-music," the big mermaid drag number that begins the second act may just be a better, funnier, richer routine than can be found in most so-labeled musicals. Hoggett worked overtime here.
So did the motley dozen on stage. "I live in my body," flaunted the chubby Greg Hildreth about his dance routine. "There's something very special about doing a play-with-music. When those musical moments do happen, they're almost ten times more rewarding than in an actual musical. It, somehow, is able to propel the story forward and, also, treat the audience to a good time."
Even in anything-goes, over-the-top, male-drag routines like this, Christian Borle manages to steal the scene, suggesting everything from silent-film's Ben Turpin to The Roadrunner. "Roger and Alex and Rick have given me free rein," he said, "but they've also made sure to say, 'Sometimes, it's best to leave the audience wanting a little more.' I think that's the trick with Black Stache — keep him driving it forward."
Adam Chanler-Berat is the Peter Pan of the occasion — actually, a wannabe trying to find his way into the iconic in-charge child we know and love. "When I was in the eighth grade," he recalled, "I played Hook, and Pan was played by a female [hey! It happens]. The most resonant Peter Pan that I know was 'Hook,' that movie with Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, which I was enthralled with when I was a kid. I must have watched it 18 times."
"I have not loved being in a show this much maybe ever in my life," trilled Celia Keenan-Bolger, who just happens to be the only female in the cast of 12. "That could be part of it," she allowed, "but it has a lot to do with the people I'm doing the show with. I have such a great respect and love for these guys. They're some of the greatest people I've ever worked with.
"I just feel so grateful to get to play this role. I feel like so much of the character was there before I got there, but then what happens when you work on a show for three years is that the writer starts to write to your strengths so I'm really grateful to have Rick Elice help me bring this little girl to life.'
Her new hubby, actor John Ellison Conlee gamely played Norman Maine while the paparazzi peppered her with flashes. For the record, she wore a pleated strapless blue jade dress from BCBG Max Azria.
The "Smash" cast was out in full force to support Borle: Debra Messing, Will Chase, Jaime Cepero, Leslie Odom Jr., et al. "I'm here pushing Borle," Messing declared about her songwriting partner on the series. "I saw this Off-Broadway. It blew me away. I loved it so much, and I'm thrilled to see it tonight."
"I totally believe," Tovah Feldshuh proclaimed — with cause: "I played Peter Pan to George Rose's Captain Hook in Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis in '78."
Previews of coming Timbers coming-attractions were reflected in the first-night list. David Byrne, who is writing an Imelda Marcos musical with Fatboy Slim for The Public, was in attendance, as was their once and future President Marcos, Jose Llana. Also present were Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, whose 29th year of musical togetherness will get a New York Pops salute April 30. They've penned song for Timbers' Rocky, which has a book by Thomas Meehan. "At the end of August," said Ahrens, "we're off to Germany for 11 weeks."
Benjamin Walker, who was Timbers' Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and next month on screen will be Tim Burton's no less bloody "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," was with his potential first lady, Mamie Gummer.
Promises, Promises Tony winner Katie Finneran, large with Child No. 2, and her actor husband, Darren Goldstein, had a special reason to attend the show. "We're great friends of Alex Timbers," Katie explained. "He got us together by casting us in Beyond Therapy at Williamstown. He's responsible for our lives and our children's lives, so we will come to see anything he does."
Lisa Lampanelli's reason: "My friend, Jamie de Roy, is one of the producers, and she said it's fabulous, and so far she hasn't lied to me. I heard it's great — seriously — and uplifting. After a week away with my parents, I could use uplifting." La de Roy's date was CBS's Mo Rocca.
Laura Osnes, with the hubby she found doing the Aladdin launch (Nathan Johnson), continues to go about as legit as you can get since hanging up her Bonnie Parker pistols, moving from one Rodgers and Hammerstein mountain (the lovely, lost Pipe Dream at Encores!) to another (the one-night-only Carnegie Hall gala presentation of The Sound of Music April 24).
Heather Parcells of the last Chorus Line and the fleeting Wonderland, had a reason you don't hear every day for attending: "It's a beautifully blocked play. It's absolutely stunning. The blocking and direction are amazing. I want to see it again. I've actually seen it once, in previews." Her next effort will a May 8-11 workshop of All That Glitters, the Liberace musical with songs and book by director-choreographer Alexander DeJong. It hopes to be Broadway-bound in 2013.
B.D. Wong, returning to his good-luck theatre, the Atkinson, where he auditioned for his Tony-winning M. Butterfly, said he has wrapped his first season of "Awake" at NBC and is now focusing on doing his one-man solo show, Skip Kennon's Herringbone May 21-22 at Dixon Place.
Record exec Kurt Deutsch and singer-wife Sherie Rene Scott said they're blissfully booked for the next Playbill cruise Dec. 6-16 to South America. "It'll be my vacation from the new show I'm writing with [composer] Todd Almond," she added.
Brooke Shields brought the girls — Rowan, 8, and Grier, 5 — on the advice of her last Broadway husband, Gomez Addams (co-director Rees).
Gavin Creel, who began the role that Borle ended on Broadway — Jimmy Smith to Sutton Foster's Thoroughly Modern Millie — said he's packed and ready to go for The Book of Mormon tour.
J. Elaine Marcos dropped by after her Priscilla, Queen of the Desert matinee. "It's definitely a fun role I have in the show," she had to crow. "You can't really mess it up. Even if you do, it's fun — and who would know?"
Colin Hanlon, sporting one of the fake mustaches going around (mimicking Black Stache's), and Max von Essen, sporting a real one for Evita, posed with Kate Wetherhead, Santino Fontana and Lindsay Nicole Chambers, who co-star with them in the web series "Submissions Only."
Composer Tom Kitt, whose Pulitzer Prize music brought Chanler-Berat to Broadway, said his latest — the cheerleader musical, Bring It On — has moved from La Jolla to Charlotte, inching toward The Great White Way.
In the Heights' Lin-Manuel Miranda, who composed the Latin half of Bring It On's dueling score, showed up with his godson, Miguel.
The lyricist for Bring It On, Amanda Green, flew in from La Jolla where she has an even newer show on the runway, Hands on a Hard Body, which she and Grey Gardens' Doug Wright have adapted from a 1997 documentary about (what else?) an endurance/sleep deprivation contest to win a Nissan Hardbody truck. "We incorporated the best things they said in the documentary — and a lot of that into song. It was fun to write the music. It's the first time I've done that."
Her daddy, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden wrote a dandy lyric to Jule Styne's "Hook's Waltz" for Peter Pan, which her brother, Adam, performed as a spot-on impersonation of Green-doing-Hook at their father's memorial service. "Yeah, he really captured my father's spirit with that," she remembered.
The glammed-up Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff, the femme half of Now. Here. This., worked the red carpet, along with Martha Plimpton, Jay A. Johnson, directors Jerry Zaks and Michael Greif, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo Tony nominee Arian Moayed (NYTW-bound) with Krissy Shields, columnist Roger Friedman, Jessica Hershberg, Ricky Paull Goldin of "All My Children" and fiancee Gretta Monahan, Elizabeth Stanley of Encore! Merrily We Roll Along, Sarah Saltzberg, Steven Pasquale and Tony-winner wife Laura Benanti, composer Andrew Lippa, The Public's Oskar Eustis and Susie Essman.
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