Early on in "Peter and the Starcatcher," the ingenious and brilliantly performed play now at the Hippodrome, there's a flashback to a grim orphanage in England where the boy who will become Peter Pan by the end of the show endures brutal treatment.
As the ugly business is reenacted, a voice softly emerges amid the din from a corner of the stage, singing the opening lines of a work from the mid-19th century by Felix Mendelssohn, a work that Victorians loved:
"O for the wings, for the wings of a dove, far away, far away would I rove."
Those few wistful measures are all it takes to reveal the heart beneath this fanciful and wildly entertaining prequel to the beloved Peter Pan story. And when that Mendelssohn melody gently returns at the end of the play, it adds a lovely little layer to Peter's discovery that he really can "just be a boy for a while" -- and can even learn how to fly.
In the grand scheme of this play, written by Rick Elice and based on a children's book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, this brief use of a very old tune may not seem like much. But it perfectly illustrates how multifaceted and intricately constructed "Peter and the Starcatcher" is, how its many parts combine to deliver an affecting dose of sentiment and philosophy along with plenty of fantasy and fun.
You can easily get in on that fun even if, like me, you never gave much of a hoot about Peter Pan, Captain Hook, Tinker Bell and the rest of that crowd created by J. M. Barrie more than a century ago. (I think the sight on TV of middle-aged Mary Martin floating on a wire pretending to be a boy put me off the whole thing when I was a kid.)
Elice has crafted a big, whirling adventure that holds up fully on its own merits. This story about lost boys, a smart girl, wacky pirates, wackier islanders, mermaids and a volatile treasure of something called "starstuff" is told through wordplay instead of swordplay, make-believe instead of special effects.
"Peter and the Starcatcher" celebrates old-fashioned theater -- shades of British music hall and pantomime, a smattering of vaudeville -- as much as it revels in the characters, emotions and issues that help a nameless, nervous teenager reach the cusp of maturity and decide to stay there.
Puns and contemporary allusions pack the dialogue, to comic, ironic or satiric effect. One of my favorite examples comes in Act 2 when the shipwrecked Peter and his buddies plead to the ruler of spooky Mollusk Island for their lives. They argue they're too valuable to be killed: "We can do all the things you guys don't want to do anymore. We're foreigners. That's what we're for."
As one of the boys says in another scene, "Oh, snap." (Yes, it's that kind of show.)
It takes an exceptionally well-tuned cast of 12 to put an engaging spin on the words and antics, to nail the humor as tellingly as the sobering reflections on the complex process of growing -- and stepping -- up. The national touring production boasts such a cast, fully on par with the one I saw in New York during the play's multiple Tony Award-winning run.
Joey deBettencourt is a natural as Peter, making the transition from vulnerable and insecure to clever and brave with great nuance.
He has an ideal match in Megan Stern as Molly, the captain's daughter ever ready to lead, but not quite prepared to discover something that might be love. Stern's wonderfully droll delivery is, in itself, a delight.
But when it comes to delivery, it would be hard to top John Sanders as Black Stache, the flashy, sometimes linguistically challenged pirate captain who would give his right hand to obtain a gem-filled trunk. Sanders makes every line sparkle and cavorts about the stage in hilariously limber fashion. As for his handling of Stache's big, pivotal scene in Act 2, I can only say: OMG.
Talent abounds throughout the remainder of the ensemble. To single out a few, Carl Howell (Prentiss) and Edward Tournier (Ted) do colorful work as Peter's pals. Native son Luke Smith (native to Annapolis, that is) shines as Stache's sidekick Smee. And Benjamin Schrader is delectable as Molly's nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake; he is also responsible for the sweet warbling about those "wings of a dove."
The rest of the music in the play is by Wayne Barker, who conjures up vintage styles with panache. His production number for a bevy of mermaids at the top of Act 2 is alone worth the price of admission.
The staging, vividly directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, also benefits from Donyale Werle's inventive and cheeky scenic design, Paloma Young's spot-on costumes, and Jeff Croiter's finely shaded lighting.
As it spins a wild back story about iconic characters, "Peter and the Starcatcher" reveals fresh touches at every turn. No one flies in this play, but it sure does provide an exhilarating lift.