Review: UM’s Peter and the Starcatcher celebrates joyful child’s play


Sebastian Gerstner and Olivia Hernandez

Yo-ho-ho, it's a bottle of fun. / Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

Once upon a time ....

All good stories start that way.

The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance is presenting one of those timeless stories told from a different perspective.

Peter and the Starcatcher is a rollicking prequel to J.M. Barrie’s famous play of eternal youth, Peter Pan. Rick Elice’s play, based on a snarky young adult novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is a play about play, child’s play. It’s about taking on different roles, imagining far away places where adults are the enemy, leaping about and sword fighting, rude body humor, scary scenes and, of course, all’s well that ends well happy endings.

It’s not technically a musical but there is a lot of lively music and a few pirate songs and a mermaid song created for the show by Wayne Barker.

Best of all it’s a great piece of theater that stays loyal to Barrie’s original play, full of pirates and a tribe of, well, disgruntled chefs and three lost boys. And this time around, there’s a girl who tells good night stories, but only when she has time away from saving the world and rescuing a nameless young boy from unhappiness.

The cast of the UM production is all in on this show. This is a true ensemble piece with all the actors taking on a variety of roles. Even the lead actors take their place in the ensemble numbers. One minute they’re pirates, the next they’re sashaying mermaids.

Director Gillian Eaton keeps the pace brisk, essential to the rapid wordplay, anachronistic topical references and broad comic and adventure action. She has a great core of lead performances and gives them the freedom to play big, which is what all playground adventures are about.

The 13-year-old nameless boy (spoiler alert) becomes Peter Pan, with the help of a self-confident, quick talking, bold 13-year-old girl named Molly, daughter of Lord Aster in the days of Queen Victoria (God Save the Queen). The lost boys are aboard a freighter under the command of Slank, a would-be tyrant of the sea. Her father is on another ship, on a mission to take a chest full of secret star stuff and destroy it. But the chest is actually on Slank’s ship. Star stuff is magic that will transform a small island into a place called Neverland.

On Lord Aster’s ship is the famous Capt. Robert Falconer Scott before his days of polar exploration. But the ship comes into the hands of pirates, lead by the dastardly Black Stache, who (alert No. 2) will don a new persona when he loses a hand and puts on a hook.

The big change here is that the passive Wendy of the original is replaced in this pre-story by the energetic Molly. She is played with crisp authority by Kourtney Bell in a charming English accent and a solid fighter’s stance. She conveys both the fighting spirit and the sweet desire to help that make Molly a special kind of hero.

The object of her solace and affection is the shy, nameless boy. Brooks Inciardi is a sweet innocent, a 13-year-old slacker dude. This is the perfect beginning for a boy who will refuse to ever grow up. Inciardi makes Peter a goofy good guy, who, as Molly, knows has the qualities of a leader behind his aw-shucks grin.

The most splashy character, of course, is Black Stache. Jeffrey James Fox is having a good time as the braggart in love with his own villainy. He swaggers, he prances, he swoons. He sings lustily and he dances lightly. He just needs a hero to match his villain and finds him. Fox also takes his turn as the lead mermaid (with 'stache still painted on). It’s a fishy drag number that would do any fraternity party proud.

The biggest laughs of the night went to Sam Bell-Gurwitz in another drag performance as Mrs. Bumbrake, Molly’s inattentive nanny. Bell-Gurwitz is hilarious with his high-pitched English accent, his foppish walk and his gleeful grin at how much everybody else is enjoying his performance.

Black Stache, of course. has his Smee, played with perfect pitch cowering adoration by Sam Kassover. Mrs. Bumbrake also has a devotee in the slavering but fierce Alf, played with good-humored lust by Jackson Verolini.

Peter’s Lost Boys are well played by Brendan Alpiner and Aaron Weinstein. Alpiner is Prestiss, who fancies himself as a natural leader. Weinstein is Ted, who yearns for a good meal and good night story.

Jack Alberts is the feisty Slank, with a lot of swagger of his own. Slank and Stache have a funny boxing match with each blow registered by a sound effect and an exaggerated grimace.

The non-PC American Indian tribe of Barrie’s classic has been replaced by a motley crew lead by a cook, Fighting Prawn, and her daughter, Hawking Clam. Erin Croom as Prawn and Savanna Crosby as Clam lead a rousing number denouncing British colonialism and praising Italian cooking (I think).

The choreography of dance numbers, fight scenes and just the general romping of the cast gives the show a sense of nonstop motion.

This is fun stuff (star stuff, magic) but probably not for younger children. Its humor will appeal to middle schoolers, though, as well as adults. Adults who love Barrie’s play might find this take a little on the vulgar side, but Barrie’s original was thought vulgar by some of his Victorian era audience.

A nostalgic trip to childhood dreams is a perfect fit for the Christmas season, a bright, gaudy, funny gift!

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

Peter and the Starcatcher continues at the Power Center for the Performing Arts on the main campus of the University of Michigan at 8 p.m. Dec. 9 and 10 and 2 p.m. Dec. 11. For ticket information, call (734)764-2538, go online to or in person at the League Ticket Office in the Michigan League Bldg. at Fletcher Street and N. University Avenue.