Disney Theatricals has been keeping a close watch on “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a fanciful prequel to J. M. Barrie’s beloved children’s story about a little boy who wouldn’t grow up. The Mouse House not only published the 2004 young adult novel in which Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson first told the tale, but they also commissioned the stage adaptation that was done in workshop at La Jolla Playhouse in 2009. Chances are Disney will hang in there for the not-inconsiderable amount of work that still needs to be done on this project — but should they?
It seems that Peter Pan (Adam Chanler-Berat of “Next to Normal”) and all the lost boys living on the island of Neverland were originally generic orphans (with generic names like “Boy”) who were shipped off from London into bondage on the remote island of Rundoon.
Through the machinations of the infamous Black Stache (played with terrific gusto by Christian Borle) and his bloodthirsty band of pirates, the orphans find themselves at sea with Lord Aster (the stalwart Karl Kenzler) and his 13-year-old daughter Molly (the sensational Celia Keenan-Bolger), the guardians (“Starcatchers”) of a substance (“Starstuff”) with magical properties that can be used for both good and evil.
Once past the scene-setting and initial exposition, the action spins off into multiple land and sea battles: pirates vs. sailors; sailors vs. native islanders; native islanders vs. pirates; Peter Pan vs. pirate captain; pirate captain vs. crocodile. Eventually, everyone gets tired of fighting, leaving it to Peter to fly off with the dubious treasure of eternal boyhood.
The basic story may be clear, but unlike the straightforward narrative voice of the source novel, the stage dialogue is encrusted with bad puns, corny jokes, strained literary allusions, borrowed song lyrics, and the odd biblical reference (Peter’s name is “like a rock”). And for what audience? Not for kids, who won’t get the references, and not for adults, who won’t be amused.
The staging, a hybrid of story theater and English pantomime, is supposed to be part of the fun, and the cast does seem to be familiar with the full-body techniques that made such a hit of “Nicholas Nickleby.”
But the costumes (by Paloma Young) aren’t specific or distinctive enough to visually sort out the pirates from the sailors from the unfriendly island natives. And while a lot of imagination has gone into Donyale Werle’s (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) collapsible set pieces, on this tight stage it’s impossible to distinguish a pirate ship from a frigate or a raft.
But the oddest thing about the production must be the music. Although Wayne Barker hasn’t supplied the show with enough songs to make it a legit musical, the few numbers that he did contribute are enough to indicate that the show might be less awkward if it actually were the musical it wants to be.