What can I say? New York loved you, “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Ben Brantley could not find enough superlatives to gush over you; and you had five Tony Awards thrown your way for best performance by a feature actor in a play, best scenic design, costume design, lighting, and sound. By all accounts the attention was deserved. But something must have happened between New York and row Q of the Ahmanson Theatre. Nor do I think my reaction is idiosyncratic. There were a number of empty seats around us after intermission.
First there is the issue of the scenery. Why first? Well, because I believe it is emblematic of how the choice of venue can make or break a theater piece. The award winning scenery and costumes are made from “repurposed, discarded objects … and … rubbish to create a(n) … environmentally friendly ambiance.” Personally I am pretty green: organic fruits and vegetables (check), free range poultry (check), no pesticides (check), and when my 7-year-old car accumulates enough miles to justify a new one I’m thinkin’ small. However, from 16 rows back (which is not the back of the house), most of what you can see of this stage set might as well be made out of papier mâché or Styrofoam. Thanks, guys, for the effort, but for most of the Ahmanson the effect of saving bottle caps from landfills for use in the proscenium is purely philosophical, not visual. Reading about it in the program does not translate to the ragtag ambiance you desired to project.
Overall, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a two-hour-15-minute, British-music-hall-inspired takeoff of the 2004 children’s novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Don’t worry, there will not be a quiz on the particulars. Pitched as an adult prequel to “Peter Pan,” most 10-year-olds, many 8-year-olds, and some 7-year-olds can probably handle it fine. For most of the rest of us, I am not sure it matters.
A kind of Monty Python wannabe, this touring company version reeks of canned and reheated spontaneity, not the breath of fresh air the Pythons always seemed able to emit regardless of how many times they had performed a bit. Just as Christian Borle garnered the Tony for his portrayal of Black Stache, John Sanders in the role shines above the rest in the touring cast. His two-minute-or-so repetition of the three word phrase, “Oh my God,” is a tour de force. Just in case you have tickets, I will not spoil it for you by going into greater detail. Sanders has played Stache on Broadway, so one can only imagine what a full cast with his sense of timing and chemistry would bring to the stage.
This production of “Peter and the Starcatcher” is one of the rare theatrical instances where the second act has more pow than the first. The drag chorus line of mermaids opening Act II is silly and delightful. You would have to be a curmudgeon not to laugh. And puns, which are tough enough to pull off in such a cavernous space even with this decent amplification, seem to work better. For example, in Act I one of the Lost Boys complains about “splitting rabbits” and there was only scattered laughter opening night. In Act II the response, “We’re no ruffians; we’ve never even been to Ruffia” tickled a lot of fancies.
In the words of the comic gods Python, “always look on the bright side of life.” Who knows? By the time you see it, or don’t, maybe directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers will be able to whip the energetic cast into comic shape and connection to match the spirit John Sanders is able to bring to his role. But I have a hunch that you would still prefer “Peter and the Starcatcher” in its more intimate New York venue than in the oversized Ahmanson.