Thirty or so years ago, the superb British actor Roger Rees played the title role in Trevor Nunn and John Caird's legendary adaptation of Charles Dickens's NICHOLAS NICKLEBY for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In that production an ensemble of actors played a narrative chorus and took multiple roles. The settings were quite simple -- the audience was asked to imagine a lot of the setting. The acting was physical in ways not expected of British actors. Since that time, British theater has done a lot of work like Nicholas Nickleby. I think of Emma Rice's delightful production of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or Melly Still's CORAM BOY at the National or, of course, WAR HORSE. So much of our theater is still so realistic that something like PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, co-directed by Roger Rees (with Alex Timbers, movement by Steven Hoggett) of all people, and written by Rees's life partner Rick Ellice, seems new. To say this enchanting production is influenced by Nicholas Nickleby should not at all reduce the pleasure it offers.
Like the enormously successful megamusical, WICKED, PETER AND THE STARCATCHER is a prequel to a familiar children's classic, in this case Peter Pan. Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, this is the story of how a young orphan becomes Peter Pan and how a bumbling, egomaniacal pirate, Black Stache, becomes Captain Hook. Yes, this is a children's story, but it is full of adult jokes, as the best family entertainment should be. Even Ayn Rand and Marcel Proust crop up in the witty banter. Occasionally there is a musical number, like the hilarious Ziegfeldish mermaid chorus that opens the second act. The script is both funny and touching.
Though this is an ensemble piece, things really comes to life when Christian Borle appears as Black Stache. His performance alone is worth the price of admission. Borle is now best known for his role as the gay composer on NBC's awful but unmissable SMASH, but like everyone else on that show, he is wasted in soap opera when he is a master of comedy (I felt the same way when I saw SMASH's Megan Hilty in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES a few weeks ago). Like James Corden in ONE MAN, TWO GUV'NORS, Borle is a master of farce. He can take a bit of slapstick to the breaking point without losing the laugh. Borle is surrounded by a great ensemble. Adam Chanler-Berat seems to specialize in playing dorky adolescents (as he did in NEXT TO NORMAL), but his Peter is winning. One almost believes that he is a child (one of the conceits of this production is that adults are playing children and, in all but one instance, men are playing women). Celia Keenan-Bolger is charming as hyper-competitive Molly, who becomes Peter's friend and gives him his first kiss, a taste of the adulthood he will never experience.
The sets are witty -- go early and study the Victorian style false proscenium that is full of funny details. The costumes are clever. Most of all, however, you will be impressed by a script that is a joy for children of all ages, the constantly inventive staging, and the consistently excellent cast. This is one of the few Broadway shows I have seen in recent years that I would call unmissable.
PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. Brooks Atkinson Theatre. May 26, 2012.