Delightfully daft, wonderfully whimsical: 'Peter Pan' prequel takes flight in Palo Alto


"Peter and the Starcatcher" earned a record number of Tony nominations and five awards when it played Broadway in 2012, cementing it in the pantheon of popular new plays and proclaiming its appeal for both youth and adults. TheatreWorks now brings it to life on the Lucie Stern Theater stage with vigor and verve and a boatload of talent, creating a lively, laugh-filled and heartfelt gift for the holidays.

American humorist Dave Barry and novelist Ridley Pearson teamed up a decade ago to imagine a prequel to J. M. Barrie's famous play, "Peter Pan," producing a bestseller; then "Peter and the Starcatcher" went through an extensive creative process to become a play, eventually scripted by Rick Elice, with musical interludes by Wayne Barker. In this zany flight of fancy set in Victorian times but with 21st-Century humor and idioms, a young orphan (a dashing everyboy Tim Homsley) finds his name, his future and his flying capability through a series of adventures with a headstrong girl named Molly (a fabulous Adrienne Walters). It's definitely a comedy, but its gentle message is sure to touch the heart as well.

The Starcatcher, Molly, assists her father, Lord Aster (Darren Bridgett), on a dangerous mission to dispatch some dangerous and powerful Star Stuff before it can fall into criminal hands. This involves two ships, The Neverland and The Wasp; a dastardly sea captain (Will Springhorn Jr.) with plans of his own for the Stuff; two more orphans (Jeremy Kahn and Cyril Jamal Cooper); assorted sailors; Molly's nanny (Ron Campbell); and more. Just when you think it can't get any more complicated, pirates arrive, including Smee (Suzanne Grodner in a delicious role for her), and Captain Hook when he's still known as The Black Stache (an amazing, show-stealing Patrick Kelly Jones) they of course also want the Treasure.

All ultimately land on Mollusk Island where the evil King (Michael Gene Sullivan) threatens to derail the entire undertaking but, you know, Peter must live to become the boy who never grows up, and Molly must live to become ... well, 'nuff said.

Almost all the actors play more than one role, become parts of the ship or set itself, or take bits of the narration. The entire ensemble is suitably wacky and energetic. Bridgett, Campbell and Sullivan are up to their usual comic tricks. Springhorn makes a good villain, and the lost orphan boys have great character definition. Walters and Homsley are both terrific as the young leads. Jones as Stache commands the stage, oozing his way as the slimiest, harshest and most effete pirate captain ever. His delivery of three little words brings the house down in gales of laughter. In short, they're all great at good campy fun, including fart jokes and puns and sight gags.

It's a high-theatrical style that would have been familiar even in Barrie's day no rigs and wires, just clever staging and physicality and proper enlistment of the audience's imagination. Even if you're skeptical, it doesn't take long to find yourself completely immersed in the convoluted plot and a total believer in Star Stuff.

The enormously talented ensemble isn't alone of course a handsome seafaring set by Joe Ragey uses every inch of the Stern proscenium and ingenious but simple devices for an angry sea storm, a drowning sequence, an intelligent jungle and a ship's hold that feels much bigger on the inside. Atmospheric lighting by Pamila Z. Gray, inspired costuming by B. Modern, and amusing sound by Brendan Aanes work together beautifully. It's a gorgeous spectacle, a feast for the senses and a wonder. Don't leave at intermission or you'll miss one of the highlights of the show, a mermaid number with insane costuming and Dottie Lester-White's understated but superbly silly choreography.

The downsides? Some lulls in a lengthy Act Two, too much choral shouting, and a script that has some difficulty finding its resolution. But the overall excellence surpasses the flaws. TheatreWorks delivers a marvelous entertainment for the holiday season, with a lot of laughs and a good measure of heart.

If you go

What: "Peter and the Starcatcher," by Rick Elice and Wayne Barker, presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Jan. 3, with 7:30 p.m. shows on Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday

Cost: Tickets range from $19 to $73; special discounts for under-30, educators, seniors.

Info: Go to www.theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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