This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
Growing up, my dad had a saying "Peter Pan doesn't necessarily have to fly."
I really had no idea what he meant.
Was it the sweet sentiment that all we really needed was 'to believe?' Or was it a complicated and slightly more cynical Barnum-like assertion about how easily people could be duped?
In Peter and the Starcatcher, the Tony Award-winning play that's currently at the Ahmanson, I came closer than ever to getting it.
Peter and the Starcatcher begins before Pan was Pan. In fact, he's not even Peter yet, just the nameless orphan "Boy." The play is based on the prequel novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson that serves as an origin story for Peter, Hook, and Neverland. It's a tale of pirates, sea voyages, a young female heroine, and a mysterious treasure chest.
It's not surprising that Disney is one of the producers or that a prequel to Peter Pan should end up at the Ahmanson. What's shocking, and reassuring, is that the magic of this production isn't based on Spiderman-like automation or saccharine musical numbers. In fact it's an ensemble show - a story theater inspired play.
And like all really great ensemble theater - the story lives in the actors. It's simple theatricality where a length of rope can transform from a wave into a door frame, a vegetable steamer inspires a steamy burlesque, and a pair of flashlights behind an umbrella become the creepiest googly eyes you've ever scene. This is theater where the audience's imagination is engaged as completely as the artists. We're asked to create, to believe, in world's that are only suggested.
It's not that the design elements aren't impressive - after all it was the designers who won the bulk of the Tony Awards - but the design is supporting the ensemble rather than upstaging it. The joy is watching a group of actors create a storm at sea simply by leaning together and an act of levitation with a ladder and some misdirection.
Now, if you're a die-hard ensemble theater fan you'll recognize some of these tricks but that's part of the game. Like good prequels, Peter and the Starcatcher traffics in foreshadowing and the expectation of what's to come – which, if you grew up with Peter Pan, is half the fun. And whether you 'get it' or not, the lazzi of the Captain loosing his hand is worth the entire show.
It's really a kid's play for adults - as one friend said at the opening "a souffle." My guess is 12-year-olds and up would find it fun. It's a little dark and wordy for the little ones and the hipster irony will evade rather than enchant them.
So if you're looking for a little holiday fun that's not drowned in tinsel or if you've got some precocious tweens you'd like to enchant for two hours, don't miss this one.
In the end "Peter Pan doesn't necessarily have to fly" in order to soar.
Peter and the Starcatcher plays at the Ahmanson Theater downtown through January 12.
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.
Banner image: Ian Michael Stuart, John Sanders (seated on trunk), Lee Zarrett and Carl Howell in Peter and the Starcatcher. Photo: Jenny Anderson