NEW YORK — Try as it might – and it tries awfully hard – "Peter and the Starcatcher" needs a lot more pixie dust to fly.
This prequel to the Peter Pan story commissioned by Disney Theatrical Productions features 12 actors in 20 scenes playing 50 characters. There are fart jokes and references to Marcel Proust and the show comments on itself endlessly. Ultimately, it tries too hard and winks too hard. Forgive the pun, but it never lands.
The Broadway version opened Sunday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with the same leads – Adam Chanler-Berat, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Christian Borle – who made it a darling downtown at the New York Theatre Workshop last year. The cast is fantastic and hardworking and collaborative, the sets are weirdly inventive, but its trip north has not done it any favors.
The show was adapted by "Jersey Boys" co-writer Rick Elice from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's best-selling 2004 children's adventure book. Telling the story of how an English orphan became Peter Pan, the play walks a fine line between self-parody and sincerity, often crossing over into a swampy mix.
Using simple props – a few lengths of rope for a ship's hull, a yellow kitchen glove becomes tropical birds, spray bottles of water mimic crashing waves – the show is often adoring of its own inventiveness, which grows tedious. Often, it just looks like children's theater on MDMA.
Act 1 is an adventure set on the high seas in which we are introduced to both a group of three orphan boys being sent into slavery aboard a pirate ship and the concept of "starstuff," magic material that falls to Earth and conveys happiness, power, increased intelligence and the ability to fly.
On the same ship is Molly (an extremely prim and proper Keenan-Bolger), who takes a liking to one of the orphans who will become Peter (a deeply emotional Chanler-Berat). Molly's mission is to make sure the starstuff is safely out of the hands of the pirates.
There's a drag mermaid revue that begins Act 2 – that and a few other pieces of nice music are written by Wayne Barker – and then we're off to another adventure set in a jungle with a giant crocodile and savages. By the end, we learn the origins of both Tinkerbell and Wendy and why Peter is so obsessed with not growing up.
The show is saved by Borle, whose performance as Black Stache – the pirate with a huge fake mustache who will later be known as Captain Hook after a very bad injury. He is over-the-top in a delicious, scenery-chomping way.
"The Stache, right under yer nose!" he bellows at one point. He is absolutely wonderful. Maybe his Hook should have his own play.
There are also some truly inspired moments – wonderfully choreographed movement by Steven Hoggett with umbrellas and big tribal masks, a line of actors with their backs to the audience creating a wall, Donyale Werle's stunning jungle set (which looks like plastic bags tossed by the tide) and that tropical bird made from just a glove. But it gets diluted with people talking in Dodo, too-easy slapstick, vomit jokes and endless references to TTFN, or ta ta for now.
Roger Rees and Alex Timbers are co-directors and this strange brew clearly shows a blend of their two hands. There's Timbers' winky-winky, oh-so-witty cultural references – Kelis' "Milkshake," Starbucks and Ayn Rand, all not terribly Victorian really – that he also offered while helming "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," and there's the endearing boyish naivety that Rees has added to parts on "Cheers" and "The Addams Family."
The Peter Pan prequel was commissioned by Disney Theatricals and ran in a workshop version in 2009 in La Jolla, Calif., before coming to New York. It's supposed to connect with kids and adults alike, but ends up shortchanging both with a frantic, indulgent mess.
Someone's been sampling a little too much of their own starstuff.