Review: ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ at Eagle Theatre

Peter and the Starcatcher creates a backstory for one of literature’s greatest heroes, Peter Pan. But much of the appeal of Rick Elice’s play – and director Ted Wioncek III’s production – lies in the way it tells that story.

Katrina Michaels, Tim Rinehart, and Adam Hoyak. Photo by David Pierron.

Katrina Michaels, Tim Rinehart, and Adam Hoyak. Photo by David Pierron.

Based on a book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Peter and the Starcatcher takes us to 1885 and follows the courses of two sailing ships. Villainous pirates are in pursuit of a treasure chest (naturally) that’s on one of the ships. But have they picked the right ship? Hard to say – these bumbling buccaneers can’t seem to get much right. Meanwhile, aboard one of those ships is a young boy without any possessions – not even a name. With the help of a bunch of other young boys – and one very special young girl – he acquires some special powers and a legendary name. But even though we think of Peter Pan as the boy who doesn’t grow up, this Peter does a lot of growing in just a little time.

It wouldn’t be a Peter Pan story without leaps of imagination, and Peter and the Starcatcher supplies plenty of fresh fantasy. (What is a starcatcher anyway? Don’t worry, this show will tell you.) But this show fleshes out the classic tale in charming and poignant ways: the Lost Boys here are orphans who are truly lost without a mother (they’ve never even heard of a bedtime story, let alone had one read to them). And the boastful boys must take a backseat to Molly, the only girl in their group, who turns out to be a better leader than any of them. There’s a winsomeness and tenderness here that will make it attractive to audiences of all ages.

There’s a lot of humor here too, thanks to the bad guy: Black Stache, a sort of sketchbook version of Captain Hook who blunders his way across the sea and bobbles the English language while he’s at it. Black Stache isn’t nearly as fearsome as he thinks he is, but that’s part of the joke; even his menacing mustache is drawn on with greasepaint, Groucho Marx-style.

Wioncek fills the show with engaging, low-key stagecraft; rather than showing us the two ships, we see a couple of hand-held model ships, with the rest of the setting suggested by ladders, ropes and other found objects. When storms attack the ships, a couple of onstage seating platforms get pushed around by the actors, drawing audience members into the action and adding to the fun. A sense of wonder permeates the production, meaning you’ll never miss grandiose sets and pyrotechnics.

Tim Rinehart and Ernie Jewell. Photo by Chris Miller.

Tim Rinehart and Ernie Jewell. Photo by Chris Miller.

The informal tone extends to the whole presentation: the boys wear sneakers and sweatshirts (Ashleigh Poteat’s costumes blend the old with the new), Chris Miller’s lighting design establishes a hazardous mood without elaborate special effects, and the scenic design (credited to Wioncek, Miller, Ernie Jewell and Peter Smith) adorns the walls with wooden pallets, creating an unfinished look.

Unfortunately, many of the show’s nuances are lost in a sound design that tends to swallow the dialogue, making it hard to follow some of the plot twists. This is especially noticeable during the songs (written by Wayne Barker); most of the lyrics are impossible to decipher, even though the band consists only of a keyboardist and a percussionist, both of whom sit between the stage and the majority of the audience.

Still, there’s a lot of warmth in Peter and the Starcatcher, much of it emanating from the cast. Adam Hoyak makes the most of his journey as Peter, searching for (and eventually finding) the hero within. Katrina Michaels is plucky and precocious as Molly, a great role model for the youngsters in the audience. Best of all is Tim Rinehart, hamming it up with plenty of glee as Black Stache. There are nice comic performances by the rest of the cast too, notably Ernie Jewell as the oblivious Smee, and Jonathan Fink, who, while doing a drag turn as Molly’s nanny (wearing both a bonnet and a beard), makes the show’s connections to British stage traditions more explicit.

What makes Eagle Theatre’s Peter and the Starcatcher unique is the dynamic and resourceful way it tells its story. It makes it a story worth catching for the entire family.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including an intermission.

Peter and the Starcatcher plays through June 11, 2017, at The Eagle Theatre – 208 Vine Street, in Hammonton, NJ. For tickets, call the box office at (609) 704-5012, or purchase them online.

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