By Manning Harris
Concerning Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” running through March 13, it all comes down to one thing: Do you believe in fairies?
That’s not as wacky as it may sound. You see, “Starcatcher” is a prequel to “Peter Pan,” a legendary show about individual freedom and the importance of staying young in spirit. If that theme has resonance with you and if you’ve been touched by “Peter Pan,” then more than likely “Starcatcher” will work for you; if not, it probably won’t.
Let’s be candid: “Peter and the Starcatcher” is not “Peter Pan,” a show that first charmed me as a child watching Broadway legend Mary Martin play the part on television. I saw Sandy Duncan perform it on Broadway in a remarkable 1980 production. More recently I saw a British company in a state-of-the-art touring show in 2011 where CGI (computer generated imagery) and a flying cast wowed crowds in a special tent in Downtown Atlanta.
My point is that “Peter Pan” works, done well. The text for “Starcatcher, by Rick Elice, based on the 2004 children’s novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is somewhat problematic. It relies very heavily on the talent and charm of the actors to give it vibrancy, and the good news is that GA Ensemble has a very fine cast; some of Atlanta’s best performers are on hand, directed by Heidi Cline McKerley.
The book reveals how a nameless orphan became the immortal Peter Pan, created of course by the Scottish novelist and playwright James M. Barrie in 1904. “Peter and the Starcatcher” had a Broadway run of about nine months in 2012. In it we find the nascent forms of Wendy, Peter, the dastardly Captain Hook, Smee, and the birth of that magical burst of stardust named Tinkerbell (do you believe?).
The plot is quite complex, yet easy to follow once you accept the syntax, as Edward Albee would say, and sink into it and begin to realize who’s who. There’s a certain Lord Aster (Bryan Brendle) who must leave his young daughter Molly (Molly Coyne) in the care of a ship’s captain (Spencer G. Stephens) and a man named Slank (Jeffrey Watkins). Lord Aster places an amulet around his neck and one for Molly also; she’s to use it if there’s trouble (it’s magic, you see).
On the ship named Neverland there are three orphan boys, one of whom is just named Boy (Jeremiah Parker Hobbs). In a performance of admirable restraint and humanity, Mr. Hobbs shows us that it hurts being a boy with no name, that being alone is often no fun, and that the gift of a real name at last (Peter!) is a gift of joy. Molly becomes a real friend and a mentor (want to guess what her name will become?), and their relationship is touching. Ms. Coyne’s Molly is winsome and spunky, and the two of them almost waltz off with the show.
Fortunately, the charm and charisma of the other actors don’t quite allow that. Can a character named Black Stache (Jeff McKerley) be anything but villainous and funny? And Mr. McKerley has genuine comic sense—a rare gift. You’ll recognize him and his faithful sidekick Smee (Al Stilo). Two other lost boys are Prentiss (Brandon Patrick) and Ted (Nicholas Faircloth), both well played. Steve Hudson is a stitch as Mrs. Brumbrake and Teacher (several actors play two roles).
Proving that there are indeed no small parts, as actors say, are Jonathan Horne (who’s played leads in “The Elephant Man” and “Romeo and Juliet” for GA Ensemble), Josh Brook, Vinnie Mascola, and Ptah Garvin. Scenic and costume design superstars Isabel and Morial Curley-Clay make fanciful, important contributions.
The play runs a bit long, especially Act I, which is rather shadowy; but then it perks up in almost British music hall style for Act II. But we have to face facts: The show does not have the pizazz and gravitas of “Peter Pan,” even with its starry-eyed aphorisms like “To have faith is to have wings,” and “Things are only worth what you’re willing to give up for them.”
What it does have, as I mentioned, are some stellar actors, and they save the day. They also rescue a show that’s probably not worthy of them.
For tickets and information, visit Get.org.