Maybe it was Bob Dylan's 76th birthday recently, but I couldn't help thinking of the chorus from "My Back Pages" while watching Peter and the Starcatcher: "Oh, but I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now."
How else to explain why a show that filled me with such loathing two years ago—nearly to the day—at South Coast Repertory, one of the country's best regional theaters, entertained, entranced and, for the briefest of moments, tugged on this cold, dark heart? True, this time, it was at STAGEStheatre, the county's longest established storefront at 20 years. But still, all things being equal, the resource, production value and talent divide between a top-notch professional theater and a storefront theater would seem to suggest that the former's show would be vastly better, right?
Wrong. And also wrong that I am in any kind of place that would suggest a younger and more idealistic spirit—a central concern of this quasi-musical play. No, the reason this production steamrolls SCR's is that unlike that one, which seemed so smug and enamored with itself, director Patti Cumby focuses on the most important thing in telling any story: telling it. There are very few bells or whistles to this show, no attempt to dazzle the audience with theatrical sleight-of-hand. Most of the effects are done in full view of the audience, with actors holding various instruments, from flashlights to rubber gloves slapping around to mimic birds.
Yes, much of the affair, a prequel to J.M. Barrie's 1904 play, which he turned into a novel a few years later, is still dumb. There are plot holes large enough to accommodate Queen Victoria's XXXL figure, and the Dave Barry-Ridley Pearson script has too much clunky, cutesy dialogue. But this streamlined, if still fanciful, production overcomes the built-in deficiencies by focusing on the relationships between the characters and, again, relating the story.
Two English ships, the faster Wasp and the decrepit Neverland, are setting off for the kingdom of Rangoon. Two identical trunks arrive at the port: one filled with something quite important to the crown, the other a decoy filled with sand. The captain of the Neverland switches the trunks, and all kinds of mischief ensue, particularly when the Wasp is overtaken by pirates. Both ships are swept up in a hurricane and the inhabitants eventually spill onto an island filled with natives who speak a sort of pidgin English punctuated by Italian-food references and fish turned into mermaids by the mysterious contents of the real trunk washing into the water.
At the heart of all this is the connection between Molly Aster (a perfectly cast Kalinda Gray), the daughter of the English lord whose mission is to throw the contents of the mysterious trunk into a volcano to prevent it from falling into evil hands, and Boy/Peter (a yearningly believable Edgar Andrew Torrens), one of three orphans sold into slavery. Molly is a thoroughly practical young English girl on the cusp of maturity who realizes she can't be a child forever; Boy/Peter is a scarred adolescent who hates grown-ups and wants to stay a boy forever. Both grow in the course of their journey, but only one actually grows up.
The bulk of the comedy is supplied via an inept, dastardly pirate captain Black Stache (Adam Bradley Clinton, who is both understated and over-the-top—no mean feat) and his hyper henchman, Smee (Robert Dean Nunez), along with the antics of the two other orphans, Prentiss (Zachary Bane) and Ted (Sterling Gates). But everyone in the 12-member ensemble, most of whom play multiple parts, get in on the action—particularly in the musical number that opens the second act, in which a most frightening collection of "mermaids" serenades the audience.
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Though this production does flirt with naughtiness at times (particularly in Nunez's hilariously campy performance), it's still basically a children's novel adapted to the stage. So things never get too deep. But there is a definite grown-up moment at the end, when one character tells another that the hurt one feels when enduring loss is important because it's telling us that what was lost mattered. And that might be the chief point this production reinforces: that the more we fret about the clock ticking and losing time, the more we diminish what all children instinctually know matters the most—the moment.
It's not the lame nourish-your-inner-child bullshit that so many armchair shrinks promote; it's about regaining some sense of that childish sense of wonder and imagination that grows more elusive the older we get—and the more we find ourselves staring into a ubiquitous digital wasteland where distraction, not dreaming, matters.
Peter and the Starcatcher at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. $28-$30.