Fifty years ago, “Peter Pan” meant three things to Rick Elice: peanut butter, an old Mary Martin kinescope rebroadcast on TV and an animated Disney movie he vaguely remembered.
Today it signifies a 2012 Tony nomination for best play and the national tour of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which comes to Charlotte this week in Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights series.
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“I was never an expert on Peter Pan,” he said from San Diego, where his new play “Dog and Pony” is rehearsing at Old Globe Theatre.
“When I was hired to adapt the 2004 novel (by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson), I’d never read the play James Barrie wrote in 1904. It’s a deep thing, philosophical and beautiful and intentionally sentimental. There are puns and high comedy and low bawdy humor and songs and alliteration and anachronisms.
“I realized he expected it to be principally for adults; the fact that it caught on with children was a delightful surprise for him. He was writing a play for people in the middle of their lives to remember a more innocent time. I wanted to take those literary tricks and incorporate those into my play, connecting them with what Dave and Ridley had done.”
The result charmed critics, audiences and Tony voters two years ago. (It had nine nominations and five wins.) He boiled down the 500-page novel, a prequel to Barrie that shows how a nameless orphan becomes Peter and the self-besotted pirate Black Stache turns into Captain Hook.
And he emphasized the role of Molly, an explorer’s daughter sent with her father to a distant isle to dispose of magical “starstuff” that could do harm if misused. She’s the “starcatcher” and the only woman on stage.
“I wanted to do a journey for two heroes, a filthy Dickensian orphan bereft of affection who meets a young woman on the brink of maturity. She’s been blessed with a father who has educated her and taken her with him on his travels, so she’s not a typical female in 1885, subject to the corseted morality of that time.
“I wanted there to be only one female actor in the company, so she’s marginalized in a way the audience immediately understands. She’s a super-bright protofeminist with the DNA of Jo March or Scout Finch or Anne of Green Gables.”
Note the Dickens reference. Elice was fresh out of Yale Drama School when the Royal Shakespeare Company came to New York in 1981 with its all-day version of Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby” and Broadway’s first $100 ticket.
Elice borrowed $100 from his father, claiming he needed it for food, and was bowled over twice: first by the show itself, which proved you could achieve maximum dramatic or comic effect with minimal means, and also by Roger Rees, who played the title role.
He later married Rees, who co-directed “Starcatcher” with Alex Timbers. The three created a world of battles, swordplay, ships and supernatural elements with simple props, ropes and a wooden set.
“You can go to movies and see computer-generated stuff we could never match. So we exercise the muscles of the imagination,” says Elice. “It looks bare bones, though it has complex backstage choreography and action. The great thing about theater is that it seems utterly real.”