Roger Rees has a tip for whacking novels down to a theater-ready size.
“You have to have a good lathe in your hand,” the Welsh-born actor-director says. “A good scalpel or something, to really cut away.”
He should know: Rees won Olivier and Tony awards as the title character in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s landmark “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” 30 years ago. The show was a sensation even with an eight-hour running time, and its memorable actor-driven storytelling style prompted Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, to think of Rees when a particularly inspiring kids’ book fell into his hands.
The book was “Peter and the Starcatchers,” and the frisky, funny stage version — minus an “s,” now known as “Peter and the Starcatcher” — swashbuckles into the Kennedy Center this week with five Tonys and widespread acclaim for its imaginatively low-tech, handmade style.
“That appearance of simplicity,” says Rick Elice, who wrote the script, “is actually very hard to achieve.”
“Hard fought-for,” Rees chimes in.
Rees and Elice are sitting in the light-filled living room of their apartment on Central Park West (they have been together since the 1980s and married since 2011), recounting the long journey that transformed the popular Dave Barry-Ridley Pearson novel into a play — with a few songs — that just closed in New York and is now enjoying a national tour.
“ ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ is 800 pages long,” Rees says of the Charles Dickens novel that many people still associate him with, though more may know him for TV stints on “Cheers” and “The West Wing.” “At one time the theater production was 15 hours long. So it’s an interesting process, about what you leave out and what you select.”
As pivotal, apparently, is how you tell the tale. Rees was artistic director of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts when Schumacher sent him “Peter and the Starcatchers,” a spirited prequel to the famed property that J.M. Barrie wrote (and infinitely expanded and adapted) about the boy who never grew up, his nemesis Captain Hook, and the rest. Rees teamed up with director Alex Timbers, a founder of the downtown New York theater group Les Freres Corbusier. They began improvising with apprentice actors, making scenes about the surly orphan Peter and the rest of the boys using minimal props, like buckets and rope.
Apparently, a lot of the stunts and staging ideas they came up with then are still in the show. But that was 2007, and co-directors Rees and Timbers didn’t even have a script.
Rees turned to Elice, who worked in a Broadway advertising agency for years before scoring a hit with his libretto (with Marshall Brickman) for the jukebox musical “Jersey Boys” in 2005. Elice was already a Barrie fan, though not necessarily because of “Peter Pan.”
“This was a guy who loved puns, alliteration, wordplay,” Elice says of the prolific author. “He would add songs to his plays; he wrote with a real irreverent sense of humor. His plays had anachronisms and contemporary references. I thought: okay, that’s going to be my tool kit.”
Elice was intrigued by the puzzle of bridging turn-of-the-20th-century Barrie with turn-of-the-21st-century Barry and Pearson. Because of what he calls the “‘Nicholas Nickleby’ zeitgeist of the project,” he felt no compunction about embracing farfetched coincidences. He also took a strong cue from the staging strategies that Rees and Timbers — whose offbeat musical hit “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” had not yet emerged — already had in place.
“Roger and Alex said, ‘Write what you want; we’ll figure out a way to do it within our theatrical language,’ ” Elice says. “That enabled me to write it almost like a screenplay. You’re able to cut from location to location and scene to scene, because everything is being established immediately via lights and actors, not moving set pieces.”
Rees says, “Of course, it’s exactly like Shakespeare’s Globe, where you just said, ‘Give me a lantern!’ and everyone knew it was dark, even though it was four o’clock in the afternoon.”
By 2009, the show was up at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse. “I’d done a pretty crappy job, actually,” Elice reckons, but he had a year to retool before it reappeared at the off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop. The show, powered by a dozen actors playing multiple parts as the story steamed from land to sea to Neverland, was a hit.
“The most exhilarating example of locomotive storytelling on Broadway since the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’ visited three decades ago,” declared the New York Times when the production moved to Broadway in 2012. The show was nominated for nine Tonys, and its precision — not its nonexistent spectacle — swept the design categories, winning for set, costumes, light and sound.
For all its deceptive simplicity, the piece had many creative hands molding it over the years. Choreographer Kelly Devine helped design the movement in its early stages, establishing what Rees calls a “muscularity” that was furthered when Steven Hoggett arrived. Hoggett is known in Washington for directing the explosive military movement in the National Theatre of Scotland’s arresting “Black Watch” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and he’s credited with movement for the action-packed “Starcatcher,” in which actors suggest everything from shipwrecks to levitation. (Timbers, Devine and Hoggett are all now busy with the upcoming Broadway version of “Rocky.”)
“What we didn’t want it to be was camp,” Rees says, and for the most part, it’s not – though a song that opens the second act is a mermaid number that’s very nearly over the top.
But then performing at a hammy height was never something “Starcatcher” shied away from: The show’s fifth Tony went to lead actor Christian Borle in the flamboyantly villainous role of Black Stache. As “Starcatcher” was taking shape, Borle — part of the production since 2009 — was stepping into the national limelight as composer Tom Levitt on NBC’s intensely scrutinized backstage drama “Smash.” As Elice recounts tailoring the comic Black Stache for Borle, Rees notes that Barrie did the same thing. Captain Hook was patterned for actor Gerald du Maurier, brother of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whose boys famously inspired Barrie to write “Peter Pan.”
Rees’s chin lifts and he briefly turns fussy and haughty to illustrate the pompous du Maurier manner. Elice says it infected the very bloodstream of Barrie’s Hook, and it was literally broadcast during the 1950s Broadway and NBC-TV “Peter Pan” starring Mary Martin and featuring Cyril Ritchard as a dastardly Hook wearing, as Elice notes, a Charles II wig.
“Cyril Ritchard was doing Gerald du Maurier,” Elice says. John Sanders will play the role here, and Elice jokes that after the show’s recent stint in Los Angeles, “He’s suddenly got like a 10 picture deal, because he’s so funny in this part.”
A gleeful showoff quality is part of the “Starcatcher” charm, and a relish for big, crowd- pleasing turns is something Rees and Elice may return to in the new musical “Dog and Pony” at San Diego’s Old Globe this spring. The piece will feature a book by Elice, music and lyrics and Michael Patrick Walker (“Altar Boyz”), direction by Rees, and a part for Borle, if he’s available.
“It’s very showoff-y,” Elice says of the project.
A shared affinity for splashy characters goes back at least to “Double Double,” a two-character thriller Rees and Elice wrote together in the 1980s, when Elice was known as Eric.
“It’s a play for two showoffs,” says Rees, who performed it with noted British actress Jane Lapotaire. “It’s a vain craft, acting. You may be modest and un-egotistical in your life; I’m quite ordinary. But I play big egotistical parts.”
Rees suggests that for all its kid-friendly appeal, “Starcatcher” is written “like a Restoration play: You have to be able to speak, you have to have a lot of breath. It’s not naturalistic, like TV work. Young American actors are really loving being in this play, because it teaches them skills that they aren’t asked to use, generally.”
The response he often gets from actors watching “Starcatcher,” Rees says, is “what I feel when I stand at the back and watch it: I want to get up and run onstage. That’s a very nice thing to have created.”
by Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. At the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater Tuesday through Feb. 16. Tickets $55-$135. Call 202-416-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.