Orphans are having a great year on Broadway, thanks to the scrappy singing paperboys of Newsies and now the scruffy teenage shipmates anchoring Peter and the Starcatcher. (Just wait until this fall's revival of Annie.) Unlike most shows about parentless children, though, this cleverly produced Peter Pan prequel adapted from a 2004 children’s book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson by Jersey Boys librettist Rick Elice aims for the funny bone rather than the heartstrings.
And there are laughs aplenty largely owing to Christian Borle’s turn as bombastic buccaneer Black Stache. This may be the tale of the future Peter Pan (Adam Chanler-Berat) and his lost-boy pals, but it's quick-on-the-draw, rubber-limbed Borle who steals the show. The actor's gifts for physical comedy aren’t exactly highlighted on NBC’s Smash; here, however, he is rewarded with a deliciously juicy part as a malaprop-prone mustachioed pirate not to mention an astonishing number of facial-hair jokes and goofy random references to Proust and Kelis. (It’s a while since anyone’s hauled out a ''Milkshake'' joke, huh?)
But, as Black Stache muses, no man is an archipelago of course, he probably means ''island'' and Borle’s not alone on this fantastical journey. Chanler-Berat (Next to Normal) makes a convincingly childlike Peter. As his partner in crime, the precocious British starcatcher Molly, Celia Keenan-Bolger (Merrily We Roll Along, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) is a pure stiff-upper-lipped delight. And Arnie Burton hams it up giddily as Molly's prim but not proper nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake.
Once the entire gang of orphans, pirates, and aristocrats get caught up in a doozy of a sea storm, the show starts to get a little bumpy as well. (Directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers’ deliberately low-tech staging think spray bottles, sticks, and wires is terribly clever and impeccably paced, but that is one looong shipwreck scene.) And when everyone finds themselves wandering through a jungle, your mind may begin to wander as well. A bunch of savages with names like Fighting Prawn and Hawking Clam who want to ''butterfly and deep-fat fry'' Peter & Co. definitely overstay their welcome.
Then again, the cannibalism jokes are probably aimed at the under-12 members of the audience. For the older demographic, there are quips about Philip Glass and Ayn Rand. Unfortunately, Peter and the Starcatcher still suffers from the same identity crisis that it exhibited during its 2011 run at New York Theatre Workshop: It doesn't quite know if it wants to be a show for kids or grown-ups.
One thing that’s sure to charm theatergoers of all ages, however, is the Act 2 opener sung by ''a fetching mob of mermaids,'' one of many musical numbers penned by Wayne Barker. The song's appeal isn't the melody which is quite pleasant, if a little derivative of the Dubin-Warren ditty ''You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me.'' No, it’s the costumes, visually audacious and environmentally considerate kitchen-gadget creations by Paloma Young. They’re not only absurdly funny the ensemble is almost entirely male but inspirational. Now we all finally have a use for our empty ketchup and mustard bottles. Bra tops! B
(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929; opening date: April 15, 2012)