Enchanting Starcatcher has all the right star stuff

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The company of Peter and the Starcatcher opens Act 2 with a rousing number involving Neverland mermaids. The Tony Award-winning play continues through Dec. 1 at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Peter (Joey deBettencourt) takes a leap of faith into a golden lagoon. Photos by Jenny Anderson

Is it the fantasy of flying? The lure of perpetual youth? The constant yearning for home? Whatever the reason, the interest in the Peter Pan story seems, if anything, even more persistent than when J.M. Barrie introduced it in the early 1900s both in book form and as a play. His story of the flying boy who will never mature beyond the cusp of manhood touched some kind of universal nerve that has resonated through a century’s worth of adaptations, reinterpretations and flights of fancy.

The most recent big-ticket re-telling comes from playwright Rick Elice, half of the team (with Marshall Brickman behind the musical juggernaut known as Jersey Boys), who has adapted the Peter Pan prequel Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson for the stage.

Working with directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, Elice conceives the tale as a piece of stripped-down theatrical storytelling short on the kind of manufactured spectacle and special effects we’ve come to expect from Tony Award-winning Broadway shows (this one has five such statues) and long on crackling good humor, rough-edged intelligence and heart.

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The touring production of Peter and the Starcatcher now at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season, is as delightful as the version I saw on Broadway. Because this is serious storytelling, with the company of actors playing many roles with very few costume alterations, it takes a minute to shake off the constraints of the usual theatergoing, you know, where the show itself does all the work and you just sit there. Peter demands a little something of its audience and offers rewards for participation.

The marvelous designers Donyale Werle (sets) and Paloma Young, with assists from Jeff Croiter’s lights and Darron L. West’s sound, give us just what we need to tease our imaginations into believing we’re seeing a “period” piece with one foot in 1880s London and the high seas and the other grounded in a modern sensibility. I’ve heard the description “steam punk” for the design (especially the costumes), and I get the punk part, just not the steam. They’re great, raggedy costumes that suggest more than outright describe. For instance, a distinguished government man in his great coat has medals on his chest, but if you really look, they’re actually keys dangling there.

That sense of re-use infuses the production with a playful, resourceful sense of childhood: serious play with drama, outcomes and reality mixed into the fantasy and imagination. You see it in the Victorian proscenium decorated with garden implements and kitchenware. You see it in the mermaids that open Act 2, with their tails made of fans and bras made of teapots and vegetable steamers. And you see it in an extraordinary piece of rope that becomes a door, a ship’s deck and many other things over the course of the play.

The 12-member company tells the story and acts the story, which takes a little getting used to, but once the rhythms are established, the story takes off, especially in Act 2, which offers one thrill after another (especially if you know your Pan lore and care about why the crocodile ticks, how Capt. Hook lost his hand, why Peter can fly and where the heck Tinkerbell came from).

There’s one clever delight after another as we see two ships headed for the island country of Rundoon. One carries a treasure belonging to Queen Victoria (God save her), and the other has been overtaken by pirates. Also tucked into one of the ships are a valiant daughter, Molly (Megan Stern), trying to help her noble father (Ian Michael Stuart) and ditch her governess, Mrs. Bumbrake (Benjamin Schrader). Once Molly does shake the old battle axe, she discovers three wayward orphans who are being sent to the King of Rundoon, who will feed them to his snakes. They are Prentiss (Carl Howell), the ineffective leader, Ted (Edward Tournier), the pork-obsessed dreamer, and the nameless, grown-up-hating boy (Joey deBettencourt who will be Peter.

Leading the charge of the pirate brigade is Black Stache (John Sanders), a word-mangling bumbler with a hint of menace. His moustache is about 90 percent Groucho, and so is Sanders’ goofily over-the-top performance.

The entire company seems to be having a ball, and their enthusiasm and commitment to the storytelling is the only special effects necessary to take us to Neverland and back.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Peter and the Starcatcher’s Tony Award-winning costume and set designers, Paloma Young and Donyale Werle for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Peter and the Starcatcher continues through Dec. 1 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$160 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Bloody good opening of a spiffy new Playhouse

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Ashkon Davaran (center) is President Andrew Jackson in Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the first show in San Francisco Playhouse’s new theater. Below: Davaran’s Jackson has an uncharacteristically reflective moment with ensemble player Michael Barrett Austin providing the soundtrack. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Opening nights don’t come much more momentous than Saturday’s gala celebrating three things:

1. San Francisco Playhouse‘s new theater space in the former Post Street Theatre (formerly the Theatre on the Square, formerly an Elks Lodge ballroom)
2. The launch of the Playhouse’s 10th anniversary season
3. And opening night of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was there to offer a toast (how appropriate – a ham on toast duty) and compared the newly configured space, down from a too-capacious 729 seats to a much cozier and more manageable 200 seats, to a great off-Broadway space, or in this case, “off-Geary” space. He also admitted that he got into politics because he really wanted to act and surprised exactly no one with that admission.

The husband-and-wife team of Bill English, artistic director, and Susi Damilano, producing director, thanked a gazillion people and said that SF Playhouse, now officially known as San Francisco Playhouse, has grown up and what might have belonged to them 10 years ago now belongs to their cohorts, their subscribers and their audiences. How gratifying it is to see a worthy theater copany making such terrific strides. And the new space really is something to be proud of, an intimate experience (like the old space on Sutter Street) on a grander scale. You can just feel the potential in the space itself, which is incredibly exciting.

If the first show in the new space is any indication, that potential will be realized sooner rather than later. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and a book by Alex Timbers, was a hit off Broadway at the Public Theatre and not a hit when it transferred to Broadway. The concept is immediately appealing: an emo rock musical about the complex life and turbulent times of America’s seventh president aka Old Hickory aka The People’s President.

You expect irreverence, humor and parallels to our own time. You expect fun and ROCK and political cynicism and in-your-face attitude laced with contemporary sass. You definitely get all of that and more, but what’s really interesting about director Jon Tracy’s production is that this is not an easy show. It’s not a crowd pleaser in the way that Rent or American Idiot is. This bloody rose has major thorns.

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When Friedman taps the power of punk and emo and straight-on American rock, he doesn’t do it in a way that mollycoddles his audience. He preserves the fist-to-the-face nature of that music so that in Timbers’ telling of the Jackson story there’s no sentimentality, no rose-colored historical glasses, no getting off the hook for anybody (modern-day audiences included).

“I’m Andrew fucking Jackson! My life sucks in particular,” the young president-to-be sings early in the show, bringing to mind similar expressions in other musicals like “The Bitch of Living” in Spring Awakening or “It Sucks to Be Me” from Avenue Q. But this being emo rock, Jackson’s adolescent self-pity is deep in his bones and provides a signpost for the bloody life that lies ahead.

Ashkon Davaran, the actor now best known for retooling “Don’t Stop Believing” for the San Francisco Giants on their way to the 2010 World Series (if you haven’t seen that extraordinary video, watch it here), is a petulant, hard-driving Jackson with more than a touch of Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong (maybe it’s the black eyeliner). After the death of his family in Tennessee Territory (were they killed by Indians or did they die of cholera?), Jackson becomes a militiaman fighting the British at age 13 and then a spokesmen for the Angry Frontiersman who feel the “doily-wearing muffin tops” in Washington, D.C., all those founding father aristocrats, are doing nothing to defend the frontier from the marauding Indians (who, by the way, were here first).

Fighting the Spanish, the French and the Indians becomes Jackson’s driving purpose, and after the practically doubles the size of the United States with all his battling (including the famous Battle of New Orleans), he becomes the first governor of Florida. When he runs for president on a campaign promoting “maverick egalitarian democracy,” he wins the popular and electoral vote, but slick maneuvering in the back halls of Congress handed the presidency to John Quincy Adams.

Four years later, Jackson runs again, promising all those populist hallmarks: transparency, accountability and open collaboration. “It’s morning again in America,” a citizen sings, and sure enough, Jackson takes the White House. He describes himself as “federal Metamucil” and says, ” I’m going to unclog this fucking system.” But he soon discovers that being president his hard. Democracy is really hard and you can’t really get anything done. So, according to this unsympathetic portrait, he turns his presidency into a personal vendetta against anyone who ever did him wrong (most notably Native Americans who would soon find themselves on the Trail of Tears). “The will of the people can’t stand in my way,” Jackson sings, “won’t stand in my way. How can I tell you how deeply I’ll make them all bleed?”

This is a harsh show, as it should be, and Tracy’s production is rough and keeps its edge through 90 energetic minutes. The members of the ensemble assist musical director Jonathan Fadner in creating the raw sound of the music – they play guitars, cellos (El Beh‘s “Ten Little Indians” is a musical highlight) and drums, and they wail. I wanted more musical finesse in the vocal arrangements, but I guess that kind of polish or intricacy defies the raging spirit of the show.

Nina Ball‘s set is a giant domed scaffolding that seems to be about 10 times the size of the old Playhouse space on Sutter, and it’s the perfect bare-bones environment for what amounts to a musical in the form of a rock concert, complete with flashy (literally) lighting design by Kurt Landisman.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a risky show because its intelligence, impertinence and hostility are embedded in a deeply cynical historical narrative constantly bitch slapped by current events. It’s a major undertaking and a brave one. San Francisco Playhouse is heading into a new and exciting frontier and not just in terms of physical space.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed composer Michael Friedman and Bloody star Ashkon Davaran for a San Francisco Chronicle story. Read the feature here.

[bonus video]

Watch San Francisco Playhouse’s promo video for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson:


Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through Nov. 24 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.