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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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.

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