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'Peter and the Starcatcher'? Not hooked

The surprise hit Off-Broadway last spring was "Peter and the Starcatcher." At least its success was a big surprise to me.

The show, a prequel to Peter Pan's story, struck me as an admirably imaginative but incoherent and tiresome attenuated kids' show with dogged preschool jokes about flatulence, barf and poop, not to mention exhaustingly self-conscious anachronisms and annoying attempts at hipness for the grown-ups.

But lots of people deeply loved the thing, which, not incidentally, is based on a bestselling Disney novel for children -- and, also not incidentally, must seem a natural to do for the boy-adventure market what an "Oz" smash prequel called "Wicked" did for the girls.

So here we are on Broadway, with all the talented and hardworking people being talented and working hard. And I tried, but I still don't get the appeal.

For reasons perhaps known only to the producers and the musicians' union, the show -- despite piano and percussion underscoring and jolly Victorian-English songs by Wayne Barker -- is billed as a play-with-music, not a musical. Twelve actors, actually 11 men and the plucky Celia Keenan-Bolger, portray dozens of good guys and bad guys and guys-badly-playing-females in this low-tech, novelistic, story-theater adaptation by Rick Elice ("Jersey Boys").

Christian Borle (who plays the composer on NBC's "Smash") is wonderful as Black Stache, the droll and malignant pre-Captain Hook pirate with madness in his eyes and what seems like helium propelling his physical comedy.

The other highlights are tangled in the staging by co-directors Alex Timbers ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson") and Roger Rees, whose cherished portrayal of Nicholas Nickleby is recalled in the ingenious use of mere rope to make doors and stairs. Victorian toy ships are enough to set the stage for the dual voyages that take Dickensian orphans to an island ruled by a tyrant with a supposedly adorable vocabulary off a menu of an Italian restaurant.

Meanwhile, Molly (Keenan-Bolger) is working with her diplomat father to protect some very important and magical and extremely puzzling "star stuff" for Queen Victoria. Until the final few minutes, which point to the beloved futures of Peter and Wendy, the story is hard to follow, busy and boring. Every time the queen is mentioned, everyone stops to say, "God save her."

Get it? Get it? Get it? Sorry, but no.

WHAT "Peter and the Starcatcher"

WHERE Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 W. 47th St.

INFO $35-$115; 877-250-2929; peterandthestarcatcherbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Imaginative is not the same as interesting

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