STARRY-EYED deBettencourt and Stern. [Photo by Jenny Anderson]
Most of us have probably never thought much about where Peter Pan came from. After all, the more mystery surrounding magical beings, the better their reputations. Now along comes the lighthearted prequel Peter and the Starcatcher, and enough of the mystery of the boy who refused to grow up remains intact.
The winner of five Tony Awards will be at the Providence Performing Arts Center through March 2. The play was adapted by Rick Elice from the 2006 children’s novel by Dave Barry (yes, the humor columnist) and Ridley Pearson and is directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers.
Unfortunately, it has a first act that’s more silly than humorous, with an underdeveloped Peter we’re not seduced into caring much about. And since this isn’t a musical, there are no songs to entertain us. The second act gets more interesting and gives us a surprisingly hilarious three- or four-minute litany of anguished “Oh my god!” by the future Captain Hook (John Sanders) when he slams a trunk and loses a hand.
We witness the origins of Captain Hook and Tinker Bell as well as Peter’s penchant for all things piratical. Instead of Wendy we have the intrepid Molly Aster (Megan Stern), a 13-year-old like Peter (Joey deBettencourt), who is a precocious apprentice Starcatcher and the real hero of this tale. The Starcatchers are a secret society, appointed by the Queen, whose mission is to protect “starstuff,” a magical ingredient that can make a person (or a cat, as we first see) fly.
Since the power of imagination is a theme here, the play is appropriately theatrical — that flying cat is a puppet. Our imaginations are expressly recruited at the outset, when the ensemble welcomes us to the world of adventure that they have in store for us. Yet characters continue to turn to us and explain what they’re doing or what’s on their mind — not the best technique for absorbing us into the action.
At the outset we meet Molly and her father, Lord Leonard Aster (Nathan Hosner), on a dock. Confiding his mission to her, they speak in Dodo, the language of not-yet-extinct Dodo birds, and he places an amulet around her neck, identical to one he wears, which will reveal if the other is in danger.
Lord Aster has been assigned to guard a trunk filled with something precious belonging to the Queen. However, we see an identical trunk, filled with sand, being marked as the royal cargo by a sneaky looking captain, Bill Slank (Jimonn Cole), and the real treasure is loaded onto his ship, the Wasp. The box of sand and Molly, left in the care of Slank, go onto the Neverland with Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake (Benjamin Schrader). They supposedly are taking a less dangerous route, while Lord Aster boards the Wasp. Before the two ships set sail, three orphan boys are sold to Slank. One of them is the future Peter, at this point known simply as Boy.