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‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ a sparkling, swashbuckling good time

December 8, 2022
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‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ a sparkling, swashbuckling good time (photo courtesy Penobscot Theatre Company/Bill Kuykendall)

BANGOR – Who was the boy who never grew up before he never grew up?

That’s the question asked and answered by “Peter and the Starcatcher,” the latest production from Penobscot Theatre Company. The play – adapted by Rick Elice from the 2004 novel “Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson – serves as a prequel of sorts to the classic J.M. Barrie tales of the one, the only Peter Pan.

The Bangor Opera House springs to raucous, rowdy life with this piece. Directed by Matt Hawkins, it’s a chance for audiences to learn the origin of the original Lost Boy, as well as meet the girl who helped set him on the path he would eventually follow. Laughter and thrills abound as this rollicking adventure plays out on the high seas and beyond.

Packed with pirates and pratfalls and plenty of music – directed by Kevin O’Donnell – and magic, featuring some stellar performances and phenomenal production values, “Peter and the Starcatcher” promises loads of holiday fun for the whole family. The show runs through December 29.

We open at a bustling British seaport, where two ships prepare for long journeys. Both are headed to the same place – the kingdom of Rundoon – but not via the same route. The Wasp is sleek and speedy, crewed by top-notch seamen. Meanwhile, the Neverland is a slower ship, crewed by a bunch of salty dogs and ne’er-do-wells and captained by the coarse, crass Bill Slank (Stephanie Colavito).

Lord Aster (Bob Smith) has been tasked by the Queen to negotiate with the King of Rundoon. He’s bringing along his precocious young daughter Molly (Emily Chester) and her nanny Mrs. Bumbrake (Jeri Misler) to experience the exotic new land, but while Lord Aster is aboard the Wasp, captained by his old friend Captain Robert Falcon Scott (Aaron Kircheis), Molly and Mrs. Bumbrake are shunted off to the slower and presumably safer Neverland. Each ship also carries a locked crate – one containing great treasure intended for Rundoon, the other a decoy.

The Neverland is also carrying a different kind of cargo – a trio of orphans intended to serve the King of Rundoon. There’s self-styled leader Prentiss (Joshua Flanagan), food-motivated Ted (Rebekah Novak) and a rather cynical young man known simply as Boy (Jackson Baker).

But there’s more to the Asters than money and blue blood. See, they are starcatchers, people possessed of a unique ability to engage with the magical substance known as starstuff. A magical substance, one might add, that plays a large role in the mission before them.

Things get crazy, however, when it is revealed that the Wasp is actually under the control of the notorious (and notoriously flamboyant) pirate captain known as Black Stache (Dominick Varney). With his loyal yes-man Smee (Jess Alexander) and the rest of his rough-and-ready crew by his side, Stache seeks the Queen’s treasure for himself and will stop at nothing to get his hands on it.

Molly makes the acquaintance of the three orphans, quickly becoming a de facto mother figure despite being roughly the same age. She helps them find food and tells them bedtime stories. But when she receives a magical message from her father, warning her of the looming danger of Black Stache and his crew, she realizes that it is likely up to her – and her new friends – to save the day.

What follows is a grand adventure that takes them to places beyond their wildest imaginations, all while trying to protect the treasure, save Lord Aster and avoid the clutches of Black Stache. Magic and marauders and well-muscled mussels abound. And along the way, Molly and the Boy (who receives a new name courtesy of Black Stache – I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count) find a true connection.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” is a visually sumptuous, exquisitely performed production, offering up an enjoyable and engaging look at the story that came before the story. You’ll never look at Peter Pan the same way – and I mean that in a good way.

Few things thrill me more as a theatergoer than to watch onstage action executed with high-speed precision, something that this production has in abundance courtesy of director/choreographer Hawkins. So many moments featuring the tight-knit ensemble cast whirling through space at a breakneck pace, spinning set pieces and shaping the space with beat after beat of frantic creativity. That rope? Now it’s a door. Those stairs? The helm of a ship. So many things become something else that your head will spin with delight. We’re talking twirling crate ballets and big costume reveals (that I won’t spoil), not to mention the most entertaining too-long-yet-not-long-enough fart the Bangor Opera House has seen in several years.

Now, a lot of that frenetic joy is made possible by the as-usual excellence of the PTC design and production team. Scenic designer William Anderson has cranked the flexibility up to 11, using stylized set pieces and the raw exposed backdrop of the Opera House itself to create an imaginative explosion evoking sea and land alike. Lighting designer Jess Fialko wields her instruments with equal deftness, shaping the space in such a way as to fill in the gaps, using light and shadow to explain and/or enhance the production’s many aesthetic mysteries. I love it when resident costume designer Kevin Koski gets a chance to really run wild, and boy oh boy does he ever run wild with this one. It doesn’t get better than a Koski unleashed. Throw Mary Clark’s deft prop design and Neil Graham’s as-always strong sound work, and you’ve got yet another triumph of production values for PTC.

Let’s talk ensemble, shall we? It’s a hell of a group. Chester is an absolute spitfire as Molly, capturing the kind of fearlessness that is all the more interesting for being considered unbecoming in a young lady. She’s a crackling ball of energy and great fun to watch. Meanwhile, as the boy who becomes you-know-who, Baker emits a surprisingly quiet dignity. It’s a not-quite stoicism that feels very much like a zag instead of a zig, but it really works; he plays a fundamental sadness that counterpoints his youthful ambitions nicely.

Flanagan and Novak are great fun as the boy’s fellow orphans. Colavito has some great fun as Bill Slank, while we get a charmingly goofy meet-cute from Misler and Gibran Vogue Graham (added bonus: Graham’s extensive flatulence). Sith and Kircheis bring different flavors of uptight aristocrat, while Fernando Barbosa delivers on some of the show’s best gags. Special mention should be made of Alexander as the man who would be Smee – he takes full advantage of his size, juxtaposing it against a quick wit and dulcet tones.

But let’s be real here – Black Stache is the star of the show. From the moment he hits the boards, Dominick Varney is firing on all cylinders. moving from mincing to menacing seemingly at will. He roars and mewls, leaning into the absurdity of this outsized personality while never letting us forget that, deep down, this is a very bad man. Leaping and gamboling, striding with purpose and without, the man who would be Hook is in very good hands (hand?) with Varney.

It's not a perfect show, mind you – there’s occasionally a bit more telling rather than showing than one might like, with scattered stretches of talkiness that saw the younger audience members get a teensy bit restless. Those stretches were brief, however, and the strong work of the cast and the production team made sure that even if a little one’s attention briefly escaped, it was quickly and hilariously and/or magically recaptured.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” is a joy to watch, pure and simple. Perhaps in less capable hands, it might have fallen short, but thanks to the immensely talented group assembled by PTC, this show soars … even if we never quite see anyone fly.

Last modified on Thursday, 08 December 2022 07:45

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