October 25, 2014
Little Boy Found — ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ gives us the backstory to ‘Pan’
March 26, 2014 5:40PM
Tell me your most profound association with Peter Pan and I will tell you how old you are.
Of course, there is no one around now with first-hand memories of Peter’s first appearance in Scottish writer J.M. Barrie’s novel, “The Little White Bird,” or his play, “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” that arrived on stage in 1904 — a “fairy play” about an ageless boy and an ordinary girl named Wendy who have adventures in the fantasy world of Neverland.
But if you were a child of the 1950s, it is surely the NBC telecasts of the musical adaptation (initially a Broadway production), starring Mary Martin as Peter and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook, that hooked you. The Disney animated version of the story arrived on movie screens in 1953.
Fast forward to the 1960s and ’70s when “The Peter Pan Syndrome” became a pop-psychology term for arrested development. Fast forward again as gymnast Cathy Rigby assumed the role for the first time in 1974, came to Broadway in 1990, and continued to fly fast and furiously in a national tour until 2013.
The directions to Neverland have remained constant for more than a century: “Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.” But with the arrival of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” the Tony Award-winning “play with music” (inspired by the bestselling 2006 novel of the same name by nationally syndicated columnist and humorist Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, and adapted for the stage by Rick Elice), audiences also have been able to fly on an answer to that persistent question: How did Peter Pan become “the boy who never grew up?”
With an Off Broadway opening in 2011, and a Broadway debut in 2012, this “grownup’s prequel” to Barrie’s classic will now arrive in Chicago in its national touring edition, running April 2-13 at the Bank of America Theatre. There are no wires for flying in this “origin story,” just an ever-morphing ensemble of 12 actors who play more than 100 characters under the co-direction of Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, with movement by the remarkable Steven Hoggett (“Black Watch,” “Once”) and music by Wayne Barker.
Pearson (co-author with Dave Barry, of the book “Peter and the Starcatchers”), grew up with both the Mary Martin and Disney versions of “Peter Pan.” The idea for writing a prequel came when he and Barry met in “a rock band of writers” assembled for a charity event.
“Like Dave, I was in a second marriage and had young daughters,” said Pearson. “And one of them had asked me: ‘How did Peter Pan meet Captain Hook in the first place?’ I had just accepted everything about the story, but I suggested to Dave that we collaborate on a prequel — he with his wonderful childlike humor, and me with my crazy suspense thriller mind that obsessively outlines a plot. I wrote the stuff for the adults and psychopaths (the pirates), and he homed in on the kids and joyous souls, and brought the crucial magic to it all.”
“The genius of Rick Elice’s play is that he was able to remain true to the funny, emotional, nonstop action of the characters, but to do so in wildly inventive theater time,” said Pearson. “But it was Thomas Schumacher [president of the Disney Theatrical Group] who really had the idea to turn it into a ‘Nicholas Nickleby-style’ production.”
As it happens, co-director Roger Rees, the Welsh-bred actor familiar to television audiences from his work on “Cheers” and “The West Wing,” created the title role in that fabled 1980 stage epic.
“My first real connection to ‘Peter Pan’ came more than 50 years ago, when I was a 15-year-old stagehand for a tour of the show that starred Donald Sinden as Capt. Hook,” Rees recalled. “I still remember how a bird flew in with a nest to rescue the wounded Peter, who was about to drown.”
“What is important with ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ is to forget all the information you’re getting and just concentrate on the characters. We show all the tricks we use, and we make the words our scenery, and much of the story depends on your imagination.”
“Of course we all wish we could see the world as a child does forever, but this story suggests that might not be the greatest thing in the world, and that we must face up to adult responsibilities,” said Rees.
As for his own Peter Pan-like qualities, Rees admits: “I’m terribly old , but people have always said I look ‘boyish,’ and I played Nickleby at 36, pretending to be 19. But like Peter I have a lot of nervous energy. I’m also optimistic. And I love the silly jokes, as well as the almost Chekhovian sadness in this play.”
NOTE: The show is described as “suitable for younger audiences, but most enjoyable for those 10 and up.”,