A tremendous number of theatrical calories are burned up in StageWorks Fresno’s chipper “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which imagines the backstory of Peter Pan. This is the hardest-working show in town.
There’s barely a moment in this innovatively staged and fiercely acted production that doesn’t burst with frantic stage energy or another whimsical tangent from playwright Rick Elice, who peppers the script with pirates, puns, tricky dialogue, juvenile humor, a vaudevillian song-and-dance routine, lots of cross-dressing and plenty of allusions to the original “Peter Pan” tale.
Director Joel C. Abels, a hard-working ensemble cast and a creative design team nail the technical demands of the production, which imagines a motley group of actors coming together in a Victorian-era music hall format as they offer a swashbuckling performance. Everyday found objects become most of the props for the show. Costume changes sometimes happen in a matter of seconds. Actors transition from one character to another faster than you can say “starstuff.” Sometimes they’re even standing next to you in the small theater’s aisles.
It’s witty, fast-paced and tremendously clever.
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Do I love “Peter and the Starcatcher”? No. I admire it, and I chuckled at it, and I appreciate the hard-working enthusiasm and proficiency of the cast and crew. It’s fun, too, when a thinly disguised “Peter Pan” reference all of a sudden becomes clear.
Still, and I might be forced to walk the plank for my Neverland naysaying, but this acclaimed show can feel as if it’s staggering a little under the weight of all that cleverness. Corny as it sounds, I wanted a little more emotional resonance and a little less theatrical razzle-dazzle.
The plot is thick and comes furiously at the audience, and the best thing to do is sit back and let it wash over you. Briefly stated: Two sailing ships set off for the island kingdom of Rundoon. On board each is an important chest, one of which contains a magical treasure.
The passengers include two of our main characters: an orphan boy without a name (played by a solid Rhys Avants), who we’ll later know as Peter; and a plucky aristocratic girl named Molly (Kenzie Stafford, quite delightful), who we learn is an “apprentice starcatcher,” a rare job description that pertains to the magical stuff in one of those chests. (Her father, an important guy named Lord Aster – a rousing Greg Ruud – sails on the other ship.)
Into this mix comes a ragtag bunch of memorable characters, including a foppish pirate named Black Stache (a wonderful Terry Lewis) and his obsequious sidekick, Smee (Christy Hathaway, unleashing a furiously groveling portrayal). When Black Stache and his minions commandeer Peter’s ship, a great chase over land and sea ensues.
There are times when the acting in the StageWorks production is so broad and exaggerated that it feels forced. An example is the role of Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly’s governess. Randall Kohlruss is so over-the-top in his blustery cross-dressing performance that it threatens to render the character a cheap joke. (He redeems himself, though, with a thoroughly charming performance in the second act as a wry mermaid.) Hathaway, too, veers occasionally toward overacting as well.
Lewis, on the other hand, makes his Black Stache both outrageous and multidimensional – and very funny – in a standout performance. Steven Weatherbee and Will Bishop, likewise, have a lot of fun with their second-act roles as island natives. Erik Olson and Daniel Longoria, as Peter’s fellow orphans, are strong.
The production team nicely transforms Bonner Auditorium into an intimate performing space, from Dan Aldape’s first-rate lighting design and Trina Short’s wildly inventive costumes to Regina Harris’ sound design. A welcome addition to this “play with music” is keyboard and percussion accompaniment by Heather Bishop and Micah Davison.
Overall, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a happy romp and a very good pick for children (older than 6 recommended). But at least in this incarnation, to me it needs a lighter, more delicate, less-overbearing approach. Or maybe I just need a good sprinkling of starstuff.
Peter and the Starcatcher
When: Through Dec. 18
Where: Fresno Art Museum Bonner Auditorium, 2233 N. First St.
Tickets: $25, $22 students and seniors
Information: 559-289-6622, www.stageworksfresno.com