Red hair. Green tights. Cap and feather. It’s a getup every child could recognize and quickly pick out as belonging to Peter Pan, that mischievous youth that never seems to grow up. He might be an English character, penned by a Scottish writer, but Peter Pan embodies a timeless personality, one that has remained the focus of popular culture for more than a century.
J. M. Barrie first wrote of Peter Pan in 1902, and since that time, the character has appeared in a seemingly endless number of stage productions, films and novels. That story of a flying boy and his ragamuffin band of Lost Boys never fails to spark curiosity, among adults as much as children. Now, an Off-Broadway production has brought Peter back to life in an entirely unique way.
“We all know Peter Pan. We all have a little bit of him inside of us, that child that at some point in our lives we shut the curtain on,” actor Adam Chanler-Berat, who is playing Peter in the current Off-Broadway production of Peter and the Starcatcher at New York Theatre Workshop, told me during recent break in rehearsals.
Peter and the Starcatcher, which is based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, takes a fresh approach at telling the tale of Peter Pan, traveling back to the beginning, before the orphan boy knew of Neverland and fairies. Many of the characters known to fans of the original story are slowly revealed throughout this new tale, including the villainous Captain Hook, known here as Black Stache.
While an origin story might sound familiar to theatre audiences, Celia Keenan-Bolger, the play’s only female cast member, says comparisons to another stage prequel, Wicked, are off base. “They couldn’t be any more different. It’s a much more bare bones telling of the story than you’ve ever heard before,” she said.
When Peter is first introduced in Starcatcher, he’s about 11 years old, or at least that’s the age Chanler-Berat decided to make his character. So, how old is the Peter America grew up to love in Walt Disney’s animated classic? “Maybe the Peter Pan everyone knows is like 50 or 60 years post the story that we tell,” said Chanler-Berat.
Starcatcher lends itself to a slightly snarkier tone than is usually used with this story, and there is certainly no Mary Martin or Cathy Rigby flying around the stage — the only “flying” that happens in Starcatcher is done with a slight tease during the final scene — but what remains the same is the magic of never growing up, and the involvement of Disney, as the company’s theatrical arm commissioned this new work.
“The idea of keeping that youthful spirit, not surrendering your childhood, that’s a very strong idea and a very magical one,” film historian Leonard Maltin said in “You Can Fly! The Making of Walt Disney’s Masterpiece ‘Peter Pan.’” “And then, of course, it was sprinkled with that Disney magic. Talk about a perfect marriage, Peter Pan and Disney.”
It was Walt Disney who first had a boy portray Peter Pan, as previous stage productions always used a female in the title role, and through animation, he was given the chance to go beyond the limits of a physical production. For the first time, there were no actors on wires or humans dressed as dogs in the telling of Barrie’s story.
Starcatcher’s co-directors Alex Timbers and Roger Rees, along with writer Rick Elice, have carried on that tradition of expanding the limits of their imaginations, although in a much less cinematic fashion, for New York Theatre Workshop’s production.
Yet, the sense of wonderment and playfulness that was emphasized by Disney in the animated film, and in nearly every other incarnation, is now looked at in a different way. “The take that this particular piece has is that maybe it’s not so great to be Peter Pan,” Keenan-Bolger said. “It shows the other side of how that goes. For Peter himself, it’s great. But, maybe there are all of these things that he isn’t going to be able to do.”
Watch my exclusive interview with Celia Keenan-Bolger and Adam Chanler-Berat: