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."
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