About half an hour into Peter and the Starcatcher, I started wondering: What is it with the New York critics? They were so excited by this show — exhilarated, ecstatic. They loved that the tech wasn't grindingly, massively hyper-expensive, but rather low-key, using ordinary objects in the way that experimental and improv companies do all the time. They loved the humor and the childish playfulness of the script, and, of course, they — like the rest of us — love J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, to which this is a prequel. Sure, there was an occasional murmur that this show is intended for kids and that we should expect the script to be a little dopey and strewn with mild scatalogical references. But those New York critics pronounced the play brilliant. So we, in our customary state of provincial torpor, got intensely excited — exhilarated, ecstatic — when we heard Peter was not only coming to Denver, but that Denver was the first city in the nation to be so blessed.
Let me be clear (as every politician in the country likes to say before going on to obfuscate like crazy): Peter and the Starcatcher makes for a fun evening. It's a sweet-tempered, humorous show, and most of the people in the audience appeared delighted with it on the night I attended. But exhilarated and ecstatic? We do exhilarating pretty well around here. For proof, check out the Aurora Fox's Metamorphoses (if you can get tickets). Or cast your mind back to Thaddeus Phillips's completely unexpected 17 Border Crosssings at Buntport, Nick Sugar's blissed-out Hair at the Littleton Town Hall, Phamaly's Fiddler on the Roof, or In the Heights at Vintage — all productions that left you feeling filled with champagne bubbles. And nothing this cast does with props is half as playful and inventive as what you'll see from the Buntport crew when they get their hands on almost any object, from a stuffed owl to a living goldfish.
There are some very funny lines and bits of business here, and the lines that aren't funny are presented with enough panache to make them fly. But the plot is incredibly loose. Even the kiddiest of kiddie books needs a certain internal logic, but here the plot points just feel levered into place. How do two trunks, one containing sand and the other starstuff, get switched? Shouldn't we have seen the process? Why does everyone end up on an island, run by a guy called Fighting Prawn, on which all the inhabitants speak in Italian menu items? And why does this particular joke go on and on?
Part of the problem surely stems from the way the play was put together. It started with a children's novel by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry (I'll bet the funniest lines are Barry's). Then director Roger Rees and Rick Elice got their hands on it, and Elice reinvented a lot of the action and synchronized it more with Barrie's book. As promised, props play a large role: Two vessels are represented by toy ships, and swishing ropes serve as the sea. I kept hoping someone would deliberately break the illusion and do a little double Dutch with those ropes, but no one did.
What's missing in all the invention and reinvention is any real pathos or wistfulness. The heroine, Molly — who turns out to be Wendy's mother — is nicely conceived as a stalwart little English girl, bossy and self-satisfied as only a colonial child can be, her father being a Lord of the Realm. She's a lot more charming than most colonialists, however, and when she encounters a trio of ragged boys — one of them a sad little nipper with no name — she swiftly assumes the role of mother. This turns out to be exactly what Boy needs to find his identity as Peter Pan. But the Pan character is fairly passive, and I couldn't summon up any feeling for him — which strikes me as more the fault of the script than of Joey deBettencourt, who plays the role. By and large, the cast is charming, and Megan Stern is a lovely, tough Molly. The really wonderful invention is the villainous Black Stache, who's simultaneously dumb, menacing and effete, and has all the best lines. John Sanders is lithe as a snake and insanely funny in the role, and his performance — along with other occasional felicities — ransoms the tale.
But exciting? Exhilarating? That description of this show just won't fly.