As much fun as Act I of “Peter and the Starcatcher” is — and that cannot be overstated — the second act contains some of the best scenes on Broadway this season.
Christian Borle (“Smash”) is absolutely fabulous as a prissy pirate prone to malapropisms. He seems to be channeling some inner Groucho with the huge mustache — he is, after all Black Stache — and does the great bug eyes as well. Borle milks every joke, but never a second too long.
Like everyone in Roger Rees and Alex Timbers‘ precisely directed play, he never misses a beat or a joke. This cast should be used in drama schools to illustrate the beauty of comic timing.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is not so easily defined. It’s a comedy, clean enough for children. The few mildly suggestive jokes sail over kids’ heads but get laughs from the adults. It’s a musical, and the opening number of the second act — with burly pirates dressed in drag as mermaids — is one of the funniest and finest production numbers. But there aren’t as many musical numbers as there are ones in which the actors must move and speak in-synch.
Playwright Rick Elice taps into the “Peter Pan” legend, basing this on the Dave Barry/Ridley Pearson novel about the beginnings of Peter Pan. This makes us all want to fly, have faith and never grow up.
The show is wonderful in so many ways, from its clever writing to Donyale Werle’s set design. Ordinary ropes and ladders are used in many ways, and plain triangular flags become menacing seas and giant crocodile teeth. The costumes are kept muted.
Borle, who is great on “Smash,” proves he is insanely talented and funny. Sometimes when a play dares to wink at its audience, using modern phrases though set in another era, it doesn’t work. Here, it does.
There’s a joke about Starbucks and one about Cadillacs. The pirates and good sailors are in on the jokes but never condescend to the audience. Among Stache’s malapropisms: “No man is an archipelago.”
There is not one misplaced line, one missed cue or one false note.
“What is it the men call me?” the pirate captain asks. “Nancy?” answers his first pirate, Smee (Kevin Del Aguila).
The play is set in 1885 England, where Lord Aster (Rick Holmes, Broadway’s “Spamalot” and TV’s “The Good Wife”) is on a sacred mission for Queen Victoria, guarding a trunk of magical stardust. He will meet up with his beloved daughter, Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolge, Broadway’s “Les Miserables” and TV’s “Heartland”), who eventually becomes the mother of Wendy in the Peter Pan stories.
Molly is on another ship, guarded by her nanny (Arnie Burton, playing the sort of hilarious old British women Monty Python favored). The ship also holds orphans, taken as cargo in the hold. They’re bound for an evil king, who will feed them to his snake.
Among the orphans is a boy so neglected he doesn’t have a name, that is until a mermaid names him Peter (Adam Chanler-Berat, Broadway’s “Next to Normal” TV’s “The Corrections”).
There’s a deliberate mix-up with trunks, and the one holding the queen’s treasures, which the pirates think they have stolen, has been switched and they get a trunk filled with sand. The mission remains for Lord Aster to find the right trunk and get it where it needs to be and reunite with Molly.
When everyone fights for the trunk on an island ruled by the king of the mollusks (please, check cynicism at the door), the monarch shouts Italian food as orders: “Pasta! Lasagna!”
Brave, athletic, competitive, ever-so-smart and earnest Molly befriends the orphan boys. From the moment she encounters them, where they are starved, beaten and fed worms, one of them says, “We’ll think of something.” “No, you won’t,” Molly says. “In my experience, boys are slow thinkers.”
She helps them, fights the pirates and is afraid of no one, ever. She and her father communicate via their magic amulets, and speak in Dodo and in Norse code. Truly the way to experience this is to see it.
Really, everyone should.