Tribute to Bedford’s rambunctious Starcatcher

Onstage in Bedford was gracious enough to let me attend their marvelous production of Peter and the Starcatcher closing weekend. I regret I was unable to write my review until now.

Two days after Christmas 1904, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan premiered in London, starring Nina Boucicault. Barrie had something more than a penchant for casting petite women in the title role. Since then, thousands of audiences have been captivated by the story of an orphaned boysprite, eternally submerged in serious play, fighting pirates and Indians, leading The Lost Boys into avid battle. Accompanied by Tinkerbell, his fairy companion, he appears at the nursery window of Wendy, Michael and John Darling. Peter is all undone because he’s lost his shadow. Wendy sews it back on for him (a not altogether painless procedure) and he sprinkles them with fairydust, so they can fly away with him to Neverland.

It doesn’t take much examination of Barrie’s Peter Pan before we start bumping into all kinds of symbolism. The tradition of casting women in the role, that continues to the present day, results in a kind of androgyny. His shadow is often a boy’s only companion and it also signifies darker urges. Pan also suggests the faun god. The Lost Boys and Peter crave Wendy as a mother, and really no other reason. Tiger Lily is essentially a tomboy. Captain Hook has a distinctively flamboyant, effete demeanor and the audience is invited to resuscitate Tinkerbell by clapping if they “believe in fairies.” None of this is to suggest anything sinister or deprecating. Any exhilarating work of timeless literature has layers, and Barrie’s Peter Pan is an exploration of maleness, whether in boyhood or adulthood, what it means to be exuberant, and to forfeit this for possibly more rewarding relationships. Possibly it’s apples and oranges.

Rick Elice’s recent musical, Peter and the Starcatcher (based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) purports to be a prequel to Peter Pan. Before Peter was transformed into an otherworldly entity, he was a nameless orphan, chilling with his buddies, Prentiss and Ted. Fairly early in Starcatcher, the three are tricked into slavery and set aboard a ship, where they cross paths with Molly.

Molly is a prodigious, precocious schoolgirl and apprentice Starcatcher. Her dad (Lord Leonard) is also a Starcatcher, that is to say, someone who gathers magical, powerful stardust. Stardust can bring great delight or tragedy to the world. Lord Leonard is on a mission to destroy a great cache of Stardust lest it be put to evil purpose. [Comparisons to Tolkien’s notorious ring are noteworthy.] Peter and the Starcatcher takes us on numerous adventures, involving pirates, Island savages, mermaids and brawny sailors. I should also mention Black Stache, a stand in for Captain Hook.

Elice’s Starcatcher is an intriguing melange of good-natured cynicism, goofy humor, flagrant gender-bending, and a need to make Peter more butch. It’s very clear that Peter’s feelings for Molly are more romantic. Starcatcher doesn’t take itself anywhere near as seriously (it must be 80% comedy) yet it considers the same issues as Peter Pan. Like many other instances of contemporary theatre, it seems to be part mockery and part homage. It fudges some of the details, yet it ultimately feels fairly respectful. You might find yourself wishing manly Peter had a bit more panache.

Director Ashley White tames this robust, boisterous, frantic content with mastery and eclat. The enormous cast, the digressions, the witty dance numbers and unexpectedly emotional turns, the demanding costume changes. White brings them off joyously and with the assurance to make them seamless. The cast is nimble, frothy, funny and at the top of their game. Ashley White has concocted a giddy, moving, memorable show, that would have daunted many other directors.

Onstage in Bedford’s Peter and the Starcatcher closed April 9th. 2819 Forest Ridge Drive, Bedford, Texas 76012. (817) 354-6444.

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