Donyale Werle may be the most inventive visual artist working in the theater today.
To enter the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for “Peter and the Starcatcher” is to find yourself in a life-size Victorian toy theater, a gilded dazzle of eye candy, with humorous cameos set in the glittering false proscenium and a glinting sea-blue backdrop for this tale of how Peter Pan became an ageless hero.
Werle, who also created the fantastic American West setting for “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” here nearly betters the filigreed Arthur Rackham illustrations that once accompanied J.M. Barrie’s stories about the boy who wouldn’t grow up.
There’s plenty more promise in the enterprise as well: staging by Roger Rees (forever Nicholas Nickleby) and Alex Timbers (from “Bloody Bloody”); a script by Rick Elice (“Jersey Boys”); and a starring performance by Christian Borle, who, in short order has gone from playing Prior Walter in “Angels in America” to a leading role on TV’s Broadway soap opera “Smash.” Here he plays the comically villainous Black Stache, eventually to become the more familiar Captain Hook.
But there’s no mention of Barrie in the program, and with good reason. For once the show begins, the humor, wisdom and delight of the original adventure quickly swirl down the quicksand funnel of this witless prequel.
Based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, Elice’s script introduces us to the gang of orphans and social outcasts who eventually become the Lost Boys and Hook’s pirate mates.
The plot involves two ships -- one called the Wasp, the other, inevitably, the Neverland -- carrying identical trunks, one filled with treasure, the other with sand. The captain of the good ship has a willful daughter Molly who befriends the boys. Eventually we will meet Hook’s lieutenant, Smee, as well as the crocodile and ticking clock that will later bedevil the unhanded Hook, not to mention Peter and Tinkerbell.
Aiming to be all things to all audiences -- amusing for children, knowing for grown-ups, sophisticated for cognoscenti - - the play recalls Elice’s similarly tin-eared book for “The Addams Family.” A monologue by Black Stache (for his Groucho-like facial hair) includes a reference to a Cadillac Escalade and a mangled idiom (“splitting rabbit” for “splitting hairs”) that defies both sensibility and sense, as does another to Ayn Rand.
There are intermittent songs by Wayne Barker and exhausting “movement” by Steven Hoggett as the two groups meet and do battle on a mysterious island.
The staging evokes the Story Theater style of “Nicholas Nickleby,” with actors doubling and tripling roles, the inventive use of simple objects (a length of rope becomes everything from the roiling sea to a ship’s cabin) as well as the breathless energy of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
Borle’s wink-wink performance is so over the top that I half expected him to applaud himself at the end. Celia Keenan-Bolger is delightful as Molly/Wendy, as is Adam Chanler-Berat as the Boy who would be Peter.
But “Peter and the Starcatcher” just can’t stop crowing about how clever it is. I wanted to smack it.
At the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Information: +1-877-250-2929; http://www.ticketmaster.com. Rating: *1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)
Today’s Muse highlights include the Olivier awards and Faberge eggs.