Peter Panned

If you're 12 years old or otherwise brain-addled, you may find Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel to the story of Peter Pan, is the best thing since Uncle Chester's Magic Basement mysteriously went up in flames. Or maybe you have to see it because you think J.M. Barrie's paean to arrested childhood development is anything other than what we smart folks (or anyone who has spent two minutes on the Internet researching Barrie) know it as: a beguiling, imaginative step on the wonderful road to pedophilia.

Okay, it's none of that. Peter Pan is an enduring literary masterpiece, an ode to childish wonder and innocence, one of the most beloved tales to ever ejaculate—um, pour forth from the creative fountain.

It's also annoying as hell, whether it's Cathy Rigby hoisted from the rafters on Broadway, Christopher Walken stumbling through it on national TV last year, or armchair psychoanalysts using Peter Pan as a catch-all meme to pigeonhole any middle-aged man who just wants to get high and play his Xbox all day—and get off our fucking backs already, won't you?

But, really, writing about the dark side of Neverland or, more precisely, creator Barrie is a cottage industry of sorts. So we'll let the lit majors and critical theorists argue over whether the psychology of a work's author should influence the viewer's subjective opinion of that person's work. (It really shouldn't, but, Jesus, Barrie was a weirdo just like Michael Jackson was a weirdo, and, no surprise, the founder of Neverland Ranch had a nutso Peter Pan obsession.)

Besides, this isn't Barrie's Peter Pan. It's Rick Elice's musicalized adaptation of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's 2006 novel, which opened in San Diego, wowed them in New York and is in the midst of its second national tour (of which this South Coast Repertory production is not a part). So, we'll just focus on the text and the dramatized execution of that text. And here's the verdict, in the vernacular of the age group this show is truly designed for, adolescents:

It's a big pile of poop.

Having never seen the show before, I'm not sure whether director Art Manke (who co-founded the acclaimed Los Angeles company A Noise Within) brings anything new to this production, but what's here is a gussied-up, histrionic mess that preens and cloys across the stage in a clumsy attempt to feel hip and relevant and serious but ultimately just feels smug and hollow. From the clumsy anachronisms and shoehorned pop-culture references to the wide swipes at swishy homosexuals and sombrero-wearing Mexican pirates, the show isn't offensive in a PC way; it's offensive because, all too often, it isn't funny.

The production is imaginative, if imaginative means stage ladders and scaffolding serving as everything from ship masts to cliffs, with actors rippling colored sheets serving as ocean waves. And there are some spirited performances, notably Matt McGrath as Black Stache (a pre-hook Captain Hook); Kasey Mahaffy as his hapless henchman, Smee; and James MacEwan as the slow but good-hearted Alf. And things do warm up after an excruciating first act set mostly at sea; we wind up on a deserted island now turned enchanted by a mysterious crate of something called starstuff leaking into a subterranean lagoon—or something like that. (Think the water source on Lost's island spiked by some Owsley Acid.) That starstuff, which only two people in the play know anything about (Allen Gilmore's Lord Aster and his spunky daughter, Molly, played by Gabrielle McClinton), is the magical elixir that transforms a young orphan, Boy (an equally spunky Wyatt Fenner), into a 20th-century legend that has given so many grown women a chance to play a young boy.

Throughout this rambling wreck—which includes mermen, giant crocodiles, oogie-boogie natives named Mollusks, Ayn Rand potshots, Cadillac Escalade shoutouts and a bunch of other cheesy references—there's a point continually hammered of youthful idealism in the face of grown-up cruelty and deception. The only problem is the courageous children fighting the good fight are just as much dipshits as the adults they battle.

Though billed in some quarters as a grown-up take on a tale of childish wonder, there's no doubt this is a show designed to bring kids and their parents into the theater. And there's nothing wrong with that. Opening up young minds to the potency of live theater is indeed a high calling for any commercial entity to aspire to. And maybe a new, contemporary take on a beloved story, such as Peter and the Starcatcher, brings a smile to Dionysus' lips. Or maybe, like at least one curmudgeon in a house filled with an adoring, enthusiastic crowd, the god's repelled by something written for the smartest kids in a seventh-grade classroom.

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