Fresno Beehive

Magical ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ soars at Roger Rocka’s

Cast member Mallory Parker, center, watches as Teddy Maldonado, left, as The Black Stache, uses a croquet mallet in a “sword” fight against Jesse McCoy, right, as Slank, who uses a toilet plunger, in Good Company Players’ dress rehearsal of “Peter and the Starcatcher” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater in Fresno.
Cast member Mallory Parker, center, watches as Teddy Maldonado, left, as The Black Stache, uses a croquet mallet in a “sword” fight against Jesse McCoy, right, as Slank, who uses a toilet plunger, in Good Company Players’ dress rehearsal of “Peter and the Starcatcher” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater in Fresno. sflores@fresnobee.com

Be very, very afraid of the pirate known as The Black Stache. Cruel beyond belief? Without a doubt. Devious, brutally efficient and possessing a razor-sharp grasp of military tactics? Of course. An eloquent leader whose words inspire his men to unimagined mayhem and debauchery? It’s a given.

Wait a moment. Have you seen Teddy Maldonado in “Peter and the Starcatcher”?

Part of the fun of this wacky “prequel” to “Peter Pan,” which serves as a sort of founding Neverland myth, is that Black Stache – who will go on to become a major character in the “Peter Pan” universe – is a decidedly non-effective pirate. The role is a comic gift for any actor that keeps on giving.

And Maldonado is superb.

He offers a performance as the buffoonish villain in the Good Company Players production that is, hands down, my favorite of the versions of the character I’ve seen. (And that includes the off-Broadway version.)

Maldonado, a GCP veteran, gives us an inept yet endearing Stache in a long, sly, leisurely burn. His characterization simmers instead of explodes. Rather than overwhelm the audience in his first few scenes as he barrels through playwright Rick Elice’s stream of puns, malapropisms and sight gags, Maldonado resists the temptation for mania and instead offers a quirky – sometimes even quiet – approach of less is more.

You could say the same for Emily Pessano’s stellar direction, which deftly strangles most of the show’s more obnoxious excesses while finding the crisp humor and underlying warmth. (This show is one of the best I’ve seen recently at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.) Time and again, she is able to quash the temptation of overblown or forced acting and burrow down into the sweet silliness of the script (which is based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) in a way that allows the jokes to tumble out of their accord.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” is meant to have a homespun, “let’s put on a show” feel, which lends itself nicely to Good Company’s small stage and decidedly non-Broadway budget. David Pierce’s inspired scenic design, dominated by a big proscenium arch sumptuously decorated with found objects (read: junk), sets the scene with a low-tech feel.

The acting ensemble gets a workout as the fast-paced narrative unfolds. As the show opens, two sailing ships set off for the island kingdom of Rundoon. Each one is sailing with an important chest, one of which contains a magical treasure.

On board one is a group of orphans, including the Boy (an impressive Alex Figueroa), that is being shipped off to an uncertain fate. There’s also Molly (Karlie Stemler, in a delightfully rascally portrayal), an “apprentice Starcatcher,” which has to do with the magical “starstuff” in one of the chests. On the other ship sails her father, Lord Aster (an august Alex Vaux), who’s been asked by Queen Victoria to deliver the precious starstuff cargo.

The best thing for an audience to do for what follows is just sit back and enjoy the ride. We’re confronted with a bevy of pirates, two shipwrecks, a group of irritated natives and a talking mermaid, among other things.

Pessano, who is also the choreographer, finds numerous clever ways to stage the production (sometimes all you need is a spray bottle for a storm, and the levitation scene is beautiful), from using her actors as walls to turning yellow plastic kitchen gloves into a flock of birds. Music plays an important role, too, though this technically isn’t a musical, and the small amount of singing nicely adds a wistful dimension.

Pessano coaxes some very strong performances from her ensemble, including Tim Smith in a deliciously food-centered performance as Fighting Prawn, Jesse McCoy as the wretched Capt. Slack, and Steve Souza as, well, a bunch of stuff. Brian Rhea’s turn in drag as Mrs. Bumbrake unfolds with just the right amount of drag, if that makes any sense.

And Shawn Williams excels in a boisterous and funny romp as Smee, Black Stache’s beleaguered underling. This production doesn’t tolerate much overacting, but when it does, Williams does it with an enthusiastic glee that goes the extra mile and gets the extra chuckle.

Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s inventive costumes, which incorporate found objects and loads of imagination, are a highlight. Joielle Adams’ lighting design, heavy on effective special effects, gives a nice visual pop to the production.

And then there’s Maldonado, whose Black Stache swishes and stumbles with superb comic timing – he takes us on a long, slow train to Flamboyant Town – while at the same time cracking us up with a huffy masculinity. If he can be a pirate, then can’t we all? That’s the real magic. It’s a star performance in a wonderful “Starcatcher,” and that’s saying a lot.

Peter and the Starcatcher

Theater review

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