While the utter glut of them on the market is oftentimes exhausting, I’m always going to be a fan of fairy tale retellings, sequels, and origin stories. All I ask is that, in putting your own twist on the story, you actually give it a twist. Wicked makes the wicked witch the hero. Ash gives Cinderella a female love interest, and Once Upon A Time makes Little Red Riding Hood the Big Bad Wolf.
I unexpectedly had the chance to see the touring performance of Peter and the Starcatcher last week. Although I own the book the show is based on, I’ve never had a chance to read it, and so I went into the show knowing absolutely nothing about the premise save that it was a Peter Pan prequel. I actually didn’t even know that it wasn’t a musical; I assumed it was, as most of the touring shows that come through my city are. That said, it was one of the most fun shows I’ve seen in a long time, and I highly recommend it.
The show opens on the full cast as they offer us the necessary backstory for the show. Lord Aster, in the service of Queen Victoria, is accompanying an important parcel from the queen to the far-off land of Rundoon on the speedy ship the Wasp. He is sending a decoy package by another ship, the Neverland, in order to safeguard its contents. Unfortunately, The Neverland’s crew turns out to be a bunch of sleazy pirates, who swap the decoy and original trunks hoping to keep the contents for themselves. They also take on three orphan boys for the journey, who, it’s implied, will be enslaved and fed to snakes upon their arrival in Rundoon.
Also traveling on the Neverland are Lord Aster’s daughter Molly and her nurse. Shortly into the journey Molly discovers the boys locked in the bilge of the ship and takes them under her wing. In their adventures around the bowels of the ship they discover something troubling: a flying cat. Molly becomes alarmed by this, but not for the reasons you’d expect—you see, the shipment her father was supposed to be protecting was full of a mythical substance called starstuff that warps the reality around it. As an apprentice Starcatcher, she’s been raised around the starstuff—Starcatchers collect and protect the stuff from the common folk—and she realizes that the only thing that could make the cat fly around is that the trunk on the Neverland is the real thing, not the decoy.
Meanwhile on the Wasp, the legitimate crew is overthrown by another band of pirates, this one led by the notorious and feared Black Stache. They turn the Wasp about in pursuit of the real treasure, and in the midst of a great storm, the two crews do battle over the trunk full of starstuff. To protect it from both sides, Molly pushes the crate and Peter, one of the orphan boys, into the ocean, telling him to steer it to a nearby island where they can pick it up once it’s safe.
However, the rumpus has caused the trunk to crack, and as the seawater seeps into the starstuff, the starstuff starts to leak into the ocean, dramatically changing the ecosystem around it. Fish turn into mermaids, already-giant crocodiles grow larger, and flappy little birds turn into magical sprites. The kids are pursued both by the island’s natives (who are, for some reason, stereotypically Italian) and by the surviving crew of pirates. After many shenanigans, Black Stache and his crew finally get hold of the trunk—only to discover that it’s empty: the entirety of the starstuff has leaked out into the environment. The melodramatic Stache slams the lid down on his hand, accidentally cutting it off (and setting the stage for a newer, more familiar moniker). Horrified at his own action and simultaneously believing that, in Peter, he has met his true nemesis, he swears to be Peter’s eternal archenemy.
The day is saved, but at a cost: because Peter has been in such close contact with the starstuff, he cannot return to society with Molly and Lord Aster. The nature of the stuff is to bend reality to whatever the user wants it to be, and they cannot trust that it won’t cause harm in the hands of a young boy with so much trauma. At first Peter is heartbroken, because he feels that, in Molly and her father, he has finally found a family, but they point out to him that the island has created a family for him in his fellow boys and the mermaids and pixies and everything else. Peter is mollified by this, and despite the extensive power of the starstuff, decides that all he wants is to be a boy “for a little while”. He settles into life on the island and his newfound eternal youth, and eventually forgets how he came to be there. Much later, a grown Molly watches him fly away with her daughter Wendy, happy that someone can, for however brief a time, look after him the way she did.
One of the things I detest about original prequels to fairy stories is that they often have a series of fourth-wall-breaking moments where someone alludes ungracefully to the fact that an origin was just created. To explain what I mean, I’m going to briefly pick on my favorite Christmas claymation special, Santa Claus is Coming to Town. The entire story is basically an effort to explain such varied traditions as decorating evergreen trees, hanging stockings by the fire, the idea that Santa comes down a chimney, the flying reindeer, and why he only comes once a year on Christmas, and each time young Mr. Kringle establishes one of those traditions, an offscreen child audience says “Oh, so that’s why we do that thing!” It makes the story corny and breaks the pace of the plot, and so I’m both grateful and a bit amazed that Peter and the Starcatcher didn’t come off that way. Despite all the Peter Pan plot points the story established—giving Peter his first and last name (he has no name when we meet him), giving a name and magic to Neverland, removing Black Stache’s hand and feeding it to the crocodile—the story never had that hokey and inorganic “Oh, so that’s why that thing is like that!” tone. It lets the audience make the connections rather than pushing them down our throats.
And while the story is a fun and often touching ride, the true magic of Peter and the Starcatcher lies in its staging. I could have easily watched the show for several more hours because the way the actors use their bodies and the scenery to tell the story is so fascinating and tightly choreographed it would make a Rube Goldberg machine jealous. Props, scenery, people, people-as-props and people-as-scenery, the production was just phenomenal in that aspect. Furthermore, you can’t get that sort of awesomeness without a tremendous cast, and the players did truly an amazing job with their roles. Black Stache in particular was a show-stealer; his melodramatic antics and scenery-chewing had me laughing out loud more often than not. (I also have to give major kudos to the musicians who provided the background music—I’m not sure how they created some of those sound effects but I was truly impressed.)
The show does suffer from a bit of Smurfette syndrome: Molly is the only woman in the cast, as her nanny Mrs. Bumbrake is played by a male actor and the mermaids are played by the male supporting cast in mer-drag. However, in an interesting twist on the original J.M. Barrie story (in which Peter runs away from home as a baby in order to avoid growing up), it’s Molly who inspires Peter to grab hold of his own agency and step away from his previous life as an abused orphan. She is the titular Starcatcher, not some magical device, and her decisions drive the story.
The only other thing I can really complain about is the Mollusks, a.k.a. the native tribe on the mysterious island. I have never seen a modern-day Peter Pan-universe story that engages well with the Native American aspect of the original story. While this is probably because the original story was breathtakingly racist and equated real Native people to the same sort of mythical play-people as mermaids and fantasy pirates, it would be a pretty great opportunity for representation if someone were to include them in a respectful and realistic way. In this case, they opted to trade out the Native American people for “native” Italians, but to keep many stereotypical aspects of Native American portrayal such as wild war whoops, “savage” behavior like feeding kids to a crocodile, and enhanced tracking and hunting skills. The average audience member is familiar with the fact that those characters were originally Native American, so does racebending them but keeping a race-stereotyped behavior intact make it less offensive? I don’t really think so.
All in all, though, this is definitely a show to see. It was easily the most engaging and impressive show I’ve seen in a while, and I encourage others to check it out.