Sunday, July 10, 2016

REVIEW: AMBITIOUS CHESTER THEATRE GROUP PRODUCTION OF “PETER AND THE STARCATCHER” REACHES FOR THE STARS!

By Ruth Ross

Since its appearance as a chapter in an adult novel in 1902 through its stage incarnation in 1904 to a 1911novel, a 1953 animated film, a 2003 dramatic/live-action film, a TV series and many other iterations, J.M. Barrie's iconic character Peter Pan has captivated audiences—young and old alike.

If you ever wondered just how Barrie came to create the mischievous flying young boy who never grows up and lives in Neverland where he leads a band of Lost Boys, interacting with fairies, pirates, mermaids, Native Americans—and occasional ordinary children from the world outside Neverland—you had only to see Finding Neverland, the Broadway musical starring Glee's Matthew Morrison that recently closed.

And if that's not enough to feed your Peter Pan addiction, just hop on over to the Black River Playhouse where the talented and ambitious troupe is presenting the first New Jersey production of Peter and the Starcatcher, Rick Elice's musical adaptation of a novel by nationally syndicated columnist, Dave Barry, and author of children's adventure books, Ridley Pearson. That mayhem reigns without destroying the little black box theater is a testament to Director Alan Van Antwerp's sure-handed marshaling of 12 actors who play nearly 100 roles around the theater's tiny playing space (and its four corners, too)!

The protagonist of the play is the starcatcherof the title, Mollie Aster, not Peter. A feisty (and bossy) little girl, she has been raised by her aristocratic father to be resourceful and fierce. They even converse in a strange language called Dodo and communicate through magic amulets worn around their necks. En route to a far-off land whose ruler is to be the recipient of a treasure trunk, Lord Aster travels on board the Wasp, Mollie on the slower decoy ship Neverland. Mollie's job is to save the treasure trunk filled with star stuff that fell from shooting stars and must be destroyed before it wreaks havoc on the world. Unfortunately for the two, both ships are captained or commandeered by pirates; with the Neverland's treasure chest in danger, it is up to a group of Lost Boys (actually, the abandoned orphan progeny of London prostitutes) to help Molly save the trunk. By the end of the play, several important questions raised in Peter Pan have been answered and Mollie's role in the famous tale has been surprisingly elucidated.

With its large number of characters and multitude of scene changes, the play's action at times feels too large (and a bit too long in duration) for the tiny playing space. Nevertheless, the performers act with gusto and energy, enchanting us and making us want to know more. Allie Acquafredda is a charming Mollie, full of vinegar, even if her British accent is often difficult to understand. She needs to project her voice louder so she can be heard when her back is to different parts of the in-the-round audience. Lewis T. Decker is the malevolent old seadog Slank, who is matched by the oily obsequiousness of Steve Nitka as Smee. Walter Zimmerman is a hoot as Mollie's nanny Mrs. Bumbrake, especially when receiving the ardent attentions of Joe Guardara's Gremkin, on of the Neverland's mates. Jeff Maschi does a fine job as Lord Aster, although his British accent sometimes obscures his dialogue.

The standout in the entire cast has to be Mike Patierno as pirate extraordinaire Black Stache. Yes, he does have a black mustache (as he reminds us often), but his prime personality trait is his mangling of the English language. He is a Mrs. Malaprop in pirate's clothing. He's loud, appropriately bombastic and foolish—although he doesn't think so. If you enjoyed him as Sir Galahad in the recent Chatham Community Players' production of Spamalot, you're going to love him here.

Founding out the cast are the Lost Boys: an adorable Zachary Catron as the food-obsessed Ted; Mark Piltz, Jr., as the know-it-all presumptive (and presumptuous) leader Alf; Joel Redmount as Alf; and a winning Scott Tyler as Boy, later to become known as Peter. The latter is a worthy side-kick to Mollie, for his feistiness, while not as strong and aggressive as hers, shows him to be the natural leader he later becomes in Barrie's classic.

In addition to director Van Antwerp, kudos o to Gayle Hendrix for the inventive (and often hilarious) costumes; Jack Bender for his music direction; Jeff Knapp for the very important sound design (operated by Bryan Miner); Kevern Cameron for an inventive set; Megan Ferentinos for choreography that somehow manages to be performed by large groups in a tiny space; Nik Marmo for evocative lighting; and Barbara Henderson for the myriad of props.

This first New Jersey production of Peter and the Starcatcher is a worthy representation of the one I saw on a proscenium stage on Broadway. Above all, it is an ambitious effort on the part of a community theater that is known for taking risks and producing edgy stuff. So if you want to find out how Captain Hook lost his hand, why an alligator ticks, among other details of the Barrie tale, and if you want to be entertained by a rollicking, new take on an old chestnut, get on over to Chester where Peter and the Starcatcher runs for just one more weekend!

Peter and the Starcatcher will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM through July 17 at the Black River Playhouse on the corner of Grove Street and Maple Avenue in Chester. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 908.979.7304 or visit www.chestertheatregroup.org online.

The show is suitable for younger audiences but most enjoyable for ages 10 and up.