Duels: Peter and the Starcatcher Is Swashbuckling, Uproarious Fun, but Magic/Bird Is an Air Ball

peter pan Duels: Peter and the Starcatcher Is Swashbuckling, Uproarious Fun, but Magic/Bird Is an Air Ball

'Peter and the Starcatcher.' (Courtesy O & M Co.)

Don’t worry too much about Peter Pan and his Lost Boys. They’ve found their way to Broadway, and they’re doing just fine.

Peter and the Starcatcher, the seriously silly prelude to J.M. Barrie’s boy-who-won’t-grow-up classic, opened Sunday night at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Based on a Disney-published 2004 young-adult novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson (and, yes, it’s that Dave Barry), the Disney-developed play with music debuted a year ago off Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop. It’s a swashbuckling story of orphans, pirates, a treacherous sea voyage and the secret substance that gives Peter has magical abilities, set in an oddly cheerful Victorian England.

With a smart, jokey book by Rick Elice, who cowrote Jersey Boys, and a delightfully clever, calculatedly let’s-put-on-a-show staging by Roger Rees, the British actor and Mr. Elice’s partner, and Alex Timbers, Peter was a hit on East Fourth Street, where it served as a modest, totally charming counterpoint to a certain overblown creation myth then making headlines up on 42nd Street. It was a small, low-fi production, perfectly suited to NYTW’s small, rough-edged East Village space, and it was a hit with both critics and audiences.

But could this show survive the trip uptown? The bigger spaces and more geriatric audiences of Broadway have a way of swallowing up and spitting out scrappy, quirky downtown shows. (See, for example, Mr. Timbers’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the emo musical about the seventh president that was a Public Theater hit and a Broadway flop.) The good news for Peter and his band of orphans is: Yes, emphatically.

Messrs. Rees and Timbers have inserted an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink gilded proscenium—gold-painted egg timers form a border around the curtain, and a giant pineapple sculpture sits at top center—within the Atkinson’s more restrained one, shrinking the stage and creating an irreverent, intimate, music-hall feel. The scenery—a mess of rope and rigging suggesting wharfs and ships for the first act; a tropical island’s expanse of shimmering blue sky for the second—is perhaps slightly more complicated than it was downtown, but negligibly so: The show still does wonders with a length of rope, which serves variously as windows, doorways, guardrails and a ship’s deck.

But what makes the directors’ winking, imaginative staging truly take flight—Wendy, Michael, John, Tinkerbell, come on!—is the big, gleeful performances from their impressively talented cast, all returning from the NYTW run.

Christian Borle, the floppy-haired, googly-eyed Smash star, plays Black Stache, the pirate who will become Hook, with foppish, pompous relish, a villain with the heart of a showman. His final face-off with Peter, in which he blusters, bellows and loses both the battle and his hand, is an amazing, lip-smacking, hilarious highlight. “He’s chewing all the scenery, sir,” reports the first mate, Smee (Kevin Del Aguila), as the omnivorous crocodile that will become Hook’s nemesis approaches. “Not in my scene, he ain’t,” Stache yells. “Spare me the theatrics, you reptilian ham!”

Each performance, not just Mr. Borle’s, is its own goofy masterpiece. Adam Chanler-Berat, with his wide face and sullenly jutting chin, the sympathetic stoner boyfriend from Next to Normal, is a perfect Peter, sensitive and sad, defiant and yet also dutiful. Celia Keenan-Bolger is pretty and funny as the bossy Molly, the overachieving Wendy antecedent with whom Peter falls in love. Carson Elrod and David Rossmer are lovable, vaudevillian lunks as Peter’s fellow orphans, and Rick Holmes is amusingly supercilious as Molly’s father, Lord Aster, the devoted Victorian compelled unfailingly to repeat “God save her” upon any utterance of his sovereign’s name. Arnie Burton, cross-dressing as Molly’s beloved, blowsy nanny Mrs. Bumbrake, proves it possible to provide comic relief in what’s already a big, broad comedy.

The play ends with Molly returning to England and Peter left behind, heartbroken, on the island he’ll call Neverland. You know the one: It’s not on any chart, you must find it in your heart—and thanks to the imaginative, hilarious, totally endearing good time that is Peter and the Starcatcher, that’s a very easy thing to do.

Let us stipulate that Magic/Bird, the eponymous Broadway play coproduced by the NBA about the ostensible rivalry between two late-20th-century basketball stars, is not designed for us—not for theater reviewers, not for regular theatergoers, not, really, for Manhattanites. Like its predecessor, Lombardi, about the legendary football coach, which had a successful but unacclaimed Broadway run last season, Magic/Bird is designed for sports fans, for people who don’t go to theater, for—in a neat role reversal from the usual theater ticket-buying pattern—husbands to insist on taking their wives to.

Even so, it’s an air ball.

Lombardi was brought to Broadway by a longtime sports-marketing executive, Tony Ponturo, and his producer partner, Fran Kirmser. Working from a script by Eric Simonson and with the director Thomas Kail, they developed a plausible if mediocre evening of theater, with a real narrative, several textured roles and two memorable performances from real Broadway actors: Jack Lauria as Vince Lombardi and Judith Light as his wife, Marie. The show took a critical drubbing, but, on strength of ticket sales to sports fans, it ran for clearly profit-making 244 performances.

For Magic/Bird, that same creative and producing team returned, this time with a piece about similarly iconic characters from a different sport. They also learned a lesson from their last outing, apparently: There’s no reason to try to make good theater, if the theater people won’t like it anyway.

Magic/Bird lacks even any attempt at theatricality. There is, at base, no story here. We’re told the two players are great; we watch them dribbling and passing, separately; we hear them each discussing their drive and ambition. We see an outline of Magic as a charmer and of Bird as an awkward, almost-autistic basketball savant. We are occasionally treated to manufactured scenes in a Boston bar, where a thickly accented regular in a Red Sox T-shirt argues with a black guy who’s a Lakers fan. Nothing much actually happens, except for a lunch cooked by Bird’s mother during a shoot for a TV commercial, at which the two jocks discover they both had demanding fathers, and thus become friends. Actual sports fans assure me this is all essentially true; it is still not the stuff of great drama.

The actors are fine if not memorable; the best performances come not from the leads (Kevin Daniel as Magic and Tug Coker as Bird) but from the key supporting players, Peter Scolari and Francois Battiste, who play those arguing barflies and, like the rest of the cast, a range of other roles. Mr. Kail’s direction is slick and smooth, and makes excellent use of projected clips from classic basketball games.

If this one works out as well as Lombardi did, no doubt they’ll all be back next season, with a thin script around World Series footage or Wimbledon highlights. Miracle on Ice on Stage, anyone?

editorial@observer.com