Winner of five Tony Awards, Rick Elice’s prequel to Peter Pan has opened at the Ahmanson. Based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, with a character originally created by James M. Barrie, Peter and the Starcatcher is primarily a play with music describing how Peter remained the eternal “boy”, Captain Hook lost his hand, and Tinker Bell was born.
The tale unfolds utilizing simple techniques reminiscent of story theater and pantomime with a touch of commedia dell’arte.
Waiting on the red carpet to interview celebrities, two women standing behind me asked if I could snap a cell phone pic of them. I did, and the excited Julie Margi said, “I’ve never seen this show, but I’m a big Peter Pan fan, so I go to anything about Peter. I even have a tattoo of him.” Hoping it wasn’t in a secret spot, I asked where. She turned around and needed to be unzipped assuring me I wouldn’t have to go too far.
Zip. A flying Peter! “Keep going.” Zip. Zip. Wendy mid-air. Zip, zip, zip — Tinker Bell and a small motif. Below it in script font I read: To love would be an awfully big adventure. “I’ve had this tattoo about two years now. It’s my first one and it was very painful.” Margi explained she’s an aesthetician who specializes in facials, waxing and makeup. “I’ve watched movies, cartoons and anything I could see that’s like a spin-off. I’ve seen Peter Pan threesixty° [a version in a video-saturated tent, which played Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa in 2010], and I’m really excited about this because I don’t know what to expect, but I hear it tells what happened before and how he became Peter.”
A picture is worth a thousand words. I grabbed photographer Ryan Miller who shoots our celeb pix and watched his eyes widen as I unzipped Margi again, assuring him this would not be an R-rated shot.
Marion Ross was the first celeb I interviewed. Afterwards, Margi asked, “Who was that actress?” I explained she was probably too young to remember TV’s Happy Days. “Oh, yes, yes! She was the mother. I saw the reruns.” Another surprise from The Girl With The Peter Tattoo — move over, Rooney Mara, with your Dragon.
Ross was here to see her friend Nathan Hosner who plays Lord Aster. “I worked with him in Kansas City last Christmas when he was Sherlock Holmes and I played his mother.” Asked to comment about the story of a boy who never grows up, Ross observed, “Well, you’re talking to a Peter Pan because as an actor, that’s what we are. We are children who are allowed to play and make believe and that’s our whole life.”
Alan Mandell waved hello and Ross beckoned him to join us. Mandell explained, “We did Grey’s Anatomy together as married people whose spouses died and we became lovers.”
He left to pick up tickets, and Ross smiled warmly. “As actors we have so many friends because when we work together we bond. Right now I’m doing Two and a Half Men [CBS] with Ashton Kutcher.”
Asked to describe her role, Ross demurred, “Well, they told me not to tell. I shoot tomorrow so you’ll see it soon. You know how the show is very risqué?” Are you his new girlfriend? Big laugh as she gave her best cat-with-the-canary grin. “Maybe. Maybe. You’ll see.”
Barrett Foa, a series regular on NCIS: Los Angeles arrived and said he was one of the show’s investors. I told him he was way too young and cute to fit the prototype. “Thank you, thank you. I was a huge fan when I saw it in La Jolla before they moved to New York. My really good friend from college Celia Keenan-Bolger was the original Molly. I invested in the Off-Broadway, Broadway and now the touring production — I believed in it that much. It speaks to the magic of theater. They make an entire world out of ropes and crates. It’s amazing.”
Most actors limit theater investments to shows they perform in or direct. Has he done this before? “Ahhh, wellllll, yes. He smiled broadly. “I have a few in my back pocket. When I believe in a show and I really want to flush that money down the toilet, I just throw it at some theater and say, I don’t need this money anymore, so I’m gonna put it in this show.” Cute and charmingly funny!
Was that your experience with Peter? “No. No.” He laughs. “Actually this has been one of my best investment returns. But, that’s not the point for theater. If I believe in it, then I don’t mind watching that money go or come back to me.”
Foa’s personal take on the “boy who won’t grow up”? He pauses. “I like to think I’m growing up but not growing old. I believe this story is universal. I like that a company of actors tells the tale in a really inventive way. There’s something special about that.”
Later that evening, the cast party was held at Kendall’s Brasserie and Bar, where we celebrated with wine and selected delicacies. British actor/director Roger Rees, who co-directed with Alex Timbers, joined me in a booth, where I asked why the story of Peter Pan — more than 100 years old — continues to fascinate audiences. “Well, don’t you wish you were as innocent as you used to be? I think we all do. In the original Barrie book and play, Peter is looking through a window at a family. He will never have one, he will never make love to anyone, and he will never have children. So, always being a child means you make a big sacrifice. You don’t enter the responsibilities of adulthood and this play challenges that. It says, maybe what you should be doing is to be an adult and be responsible.”
Rees was unconcerned about going to Broadway with a show, which, by today’s standards, has a relatively bare-bones stage. “We ask the audience to use their imagination, and I think they like that and are flattered by it. We don’t have wires for Peter to fly. That is a very phony experience. In this production you see Peter fly when he jumps off a ladder and is caught by other people. So the human body is actually flying through the air…It is not a children’s play. This is a deep adult play with a lot of panache.”
John Sanders plays the role of Black Stache, which garnered Christian Borle a Tony award. “I was a cover for Stache and a couple of others. I played it on Broadway and then when it ended I left to do the original company of Matilda (the Musical). Last summer Rick Elice emailed me to ask if I’d like to play Stache on the tour and it has all been very exciting.”
The tour opened in Denver and played eight cities before arriving in Los Angeles. “As we take it around the country, we find what comes back at us is different from city to city. We’ve only been in LA two nights but I can see it’s a really sophisticated audience here. They love the writing, cultural touchstones and so many anachronisms — little things that seem like they don’t belong. This LA audience is really tuned into it all.”
The highlight of the second act is a show-stopping, hysterical aria of a monologue where we discover how Stache lost his hand and became Captain Hook. “To be quite honest, it changes drastically from night to night. There are new things that come up in almost every performance. There’s a bit in the beginning and at the end which is always the same, but the vast majority of it is a conversation with the audience.” Sanders revealed this evening’s nuance. “Lately, I’ve been experimenting with this thing where I set the table for myself, and tonight was terrific for that bit. There were rolling waves of laughter; riding them, letting them go away. then getting them back was great, because this was a very willing audience and such fun to play with.”
Careers have their ups and downs, and often actors experience a defining moment resulting in that successful trajectory. “You know I was just talking to my friend about exactly that. I had come off a big success and then had a year when almost nothing happened. After a number of months not working, I was asked to do a play by a director I’d worked with many times. He and I really butted heads on this project, and overcoming those difficulties shook a lot of stuff loose for me. That hard time allowed me to come out a bit raw and hungry.”
He smiled and added, “It also helped that a few New York casting directors saw me at the right time when I was working in Chicago.”
Explain what you meant by “shook things loose”. Sanders took a moment. “The idea that there is a right way of doing things. I always thought if I could only figure out what that is — the secret other people know about acting, how to do it well, how to do it right. If I could figure out what all these other people seem to know, then maybe I’d get into the club.”
The self-discovery he experienced was timely since Sanders was about to re-create a role he had understudied to the actor who won the Tony. “I learned the right way to do things is your way, because that’s what people are paying to see. For me, that was the secret. In some ways it’s a necessary lesson before doing something like this, so you’re not trying to figure out what his secrets are. You can see the truths and ideas behind what he’s doing; behind the stagecraft, and employ those ideas in your own way. Instead of trying to be somebody, be you.”
You can see Peter and The Starcatcher at the Ahmanson thru January 12.
“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”…J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan
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