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INHALE THE STARSTUFF: Peter Pan prequel debuts with a magical evening at the theater

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‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ is incredible and delightful and imaginative. Gwenyfar hasn’t had this much fun sitting still in a long time.

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In 1902 the world was first introduced to the unforgettable boy who wouldn’t grow up: Peter Pan. Created by J.M. Barrie, the story of “Peter Pan” has graced stage, screen, radio and multiple variations on the printed page. Without a doubt, he has become one of the most identifiable cultural icons we have. In 2002 Ridley Pearson and Dave Berry revealed the origin story of Peter Pan with the publication of their novel “Peter and the Starcatchers.” Rick Elice, of “Jersey Boys” and “Addams Family” fame, adapted the book to the stage. Now Opera House Theatre Company brings the magical and incredibly funny show to the Main Stage of Thalian Hall.

‘Peter and the Starcatcher,’ directed by Jason Aycock, is a magical prequel to the story of ‘Peter Pan,’ based on the 2004 novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Now playing at Thalian Hall. Photo by EJM Photography

‘Peter and the Starcatcher,’ directed by Jason Aycock, is a magical prequel to the story of ‘Peter Pan,’ based on the 2004 novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Now playing at Thalian Hall.
Photo by EJM Photography

Directed by Jason Aycock the show unfolds with a Monty Python-escque love of word play, mixed with a real-life recreation of Looney Tunes cartoons.  Audiences who can’t find something to laugh at in the show must have a heart made of stone. Two ships, the Neverland and the Wasp, depart the same wharf on the same day.  Two trunks, identical in appearance, one for each ship, are supposed to be loaded. On the Wasp, captained by Robert Scott (who will go on to become famous for a disastrous trip to the South Pole (Marlon Ramos),  travels Sir Leonard Aster (Sam Robison) on a very important secret mission to Rundoon. On the slower Neverland ship, captained by Bill Slank (Heather Setzler), Lord Aster is sending his most precious jewel: his 13 year old daughter Molly (Emilia Torello) under the care of her nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake (George Domby).  Locked in their cabin by Slank, they are visited by Alf (Jordan Wolfe), who lets slip one of the secrets of the ship, which intrigues Molly. Frankly, anything intrigues the precocious and over-achieving girl.
Torello really turns in a magnificent performance as Molly. She’s like a Victorian Hermione Grainger and goes at each and every single moment with intense verve. In the hold of the ship, she finds three orphans: Prentiss (Eddie Waters), who proudly announces he is the leader—and he certainly has attention-seeking tendencies, charm and more than a passing amount of intelligence to make that claim. His sidekick is Ted (Kenneth Rosander), who has never had a complete meal in his life at the orphanage and dreams of all-things culinary. Grudgingly included in their world—with a certain amount of not-so-good-natured teasing—is a nameless orphan played by Joe Basquill. (Spoiler alert: He eventually is named Peter.)

While Molly befriends the orphans, Mrs. Bumbrake falls in love with Alf, in possibly one of the most endearing and humorous  courtships I’ve seen onstage in a long time. Domby and Wolfe are sidesplittingly funny re-enacting what is essentially a recurring Panto skit.  It requires  good timing and chemistry, with an ability to play to each other and break the fourth wall for commentary in the midst of an exchange. It’s difficult, but they make it look easy while having tremendous fun.

Meanwhile, The Wasp has been overtaken by pirates, under the command of Black Stache (Jeff Phillips) and his much more competent second in command, Smee (Randy Davis). Lord Aster and Captain Scott are taken prisoner and the whole mission is endangered.  Instead of heading to Rundoon, the pirates change course to overtake Neverland and get the trunk that Slank swapped with the one that was supposed to be on the Wasp. The one on Neverland contains Starstuff, which will make anyone who touches it what he or she desires most. The plot is in full motion with a pirate crew to overtake a ship carrying a trunk full of magic, three orphans and a determined young Starcatcher, Molly.

For most of the first act Molly is the real hero of the show: She has plans, execution, and moral compass. For act two, we watch Peter become her equal. Together they save everyone from the clutches of Fighting Prawn (Jamey Stone), and the wiles of Black Stache and Smee. The growth on the part of Basquill’s Peter is pretty remarkable to see. He truly begins the show as nothing more than a defensive lump of bare survival.  In front of us, he gains self awareness, strength and natural leadership. But it wouldn’t work without Torello’s strength, self assurance and ambition from the beginning. She is a foil, but more over a force to emulate. Peter also wants friends, like Prentiss and Ted, who have adventures at every turn. Waters and Rosander really excel as Prentiss and Ted at making each moment packed with intensity and activity.  They’re as fun and exhausting as spending time with little children.  Basquill watches them with longing, confusion and envy.

This is technically titled “a play with music,” so it is not a full-fledged musical in the usual sense. Instead of a full band, music director Lorene Walsh admirably plays keyboards with Alex Tomlin handling all percussion. Wayne Barker has written a handful of songs that provide an opportunity to move the plot forward at an advanced pace when necessary. Perhaps the most enjoyable of all the songs is “Mermaid Outta Me” at the opening of the second act, which explains how a group of fish became mermaids after coming in contact with Starstuff.

Juli Harvey’s costumes are a visual feast.  The progress of Molly’s dress from perfect Victorian child to the ever-more tattered-and-torn as her adventures take their toll on her garments shows sharp attention to detail. I imagine Harvey had a heyday making Randy Davis’ mermaid attire with skeleton pieces attached to him. Another mermaid has an empty beer bottle as a head dress, while the entire Mollusk Army, led by Fighting Prawn. They have an assortment of food, kitchen utensils and vegetation that is hard to describe but, taken in conjunction with the mermaids, defines visual comedy. It’s a sight gag, most definitely.

Terry Collins has built a quite magical playground for all the action. Half of the stage is raked to create the image of a ship listing at sea. For Mollusk Island, the greenery and human-sized plants are surprisingly versatile.  He surrounds it all with a fantastic proscenium of red and gold nautical images.

But each port hole, window, and hallway is actually created by the cast utilizing usually nothing more than a piece of rope or a ladder. “The 39 Steps” has a very similar approach to creating a world and asks the audience to enjoy the leap of imagination involved.  That is the key to “Peter and the Starcatcher” in every sense: Expand imagination. The narration begins very much like a bed time story and quickly takes the turn to the way children “play pretend.” They narrate what they are doing, and how and why and with sound effects. That is what Aycock and the cast have recreated onstage. It is incredible and delightful and imaginative. For sheer joy, I haven’t had this much fun sitting still in a long time. This is the perfect time to take a kid to the theatre—or at least bring your inner child out for a night to play.

Peter and the Starcatcher
September 8-10, 8 p.m.;
Sundays, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $32
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.

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