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Imaginative prequel to Peter Pan heads to the Hippodrome

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The boy who never grew up, but learned how to fly, has fascinated children — and adults who still remember being young — since he first soared above a London stage in a hit play by J.M. Barrie in 1904.

More than a century later, audiences can have fun learning how that boy turned into Peter Pan, thanks to another hit play, this one landing in Baltimore on Tuesday to start a two-week engagement at the Hippodrome.

"Peter and the Starcatcher," which earned a slew of Tony Awards after its 2012 Broadway run, is an eventful show loaded with humor and heart, not to mention surprise. Oh yes, and music, too. It's at once a fanciful Peter Pan prequel and an affectionate homage to good old-fashioned theater. There is nothing quite like it.

The play's roots go back to a 2004 best-selling children's book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson called "Peter and the Starcatchers," the first in what became a series of five.

Barry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist, and Pearson, a prolific author of suspense novels, got the idea for their project by happenstance.

"At breakfast one day," Barry says, "Ridley's daughter, Paige, asked him, 'How did Peter Pan meet Captain Hook in the first place?' I don't know why I thought that would be fun for a book. But we ended up writing 550 pages."

The scenario the men concocted involved an orphan named Peter and a girl named Molly who encounter pirates and other threats as they attempt to keep a treasure of "starstuff" from falling into the wrong hands. Along the way, that starstuff gives Peter the power of flight.

The book quickly took off.

"It was optioned by Disney for Pixar," Barry says, "so I figured it would be a movie and there would have to be CGI [computer-generated imagery]. But then Disney Theatricals came along."

That branch of the Disney conglomerate spotted potential in adapting the book for the stage. In 2007, theater directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers recruited Rick Elice, who co-wrote the mega-hit "Jersey Boys," to do the writing.

"Roger and Alex wanted a play with adult sensibilities and adult actors," Elice says.

The directors also wanted to avoid flashy scenery and a big ensemble (this is no "Wicked"-size prequel). Only a dozen actors and multiple roles. No one hooked up to wires and harnesses to "fly" around the stage in conventional Peter Pan style. Just a lot of good old make-believe.

Elice welcomed the challenge, though not as a lifelong Peter Pan fan.

"I knew the peanut butter really well," he says. "As a little boy, I saw Mary Martin in the TV musical in black and white, and, like all good children, I saw the Disney animated feature in color. But I was no student of the character or the mythology."

Elice's play went through various drafts and workshops. Along the way, assorted characters, incidents and an 's' ("Starcatchers" to "Starcatcher") were dropped from the children's novel. What finally emerged on Broadway in 2012 was much more than an adaptation.

"Rick completely transformed it," Barry says. "He was up-front at the beginning about what he wanted to do, and that was fine with me. It's so different from what we wrote, but in a wonderful way. He made it way funnier and way more oriented to adults."

Elice felt a bit sheepish at first about the tampering.

"Dave Barry was a hero of mine," he says. "The first time he attended a rehearsal, I heard him ask, 'Who wrote the dialogue?' I was edging to the door when I heard him say, 'It's funny.' So my hand shot up."

In addition to the Barry/Pearson book, Elice went back to the 1904 Barrie play for inspiration.

"It was much more bittersweet than the familiar versions of 'Peter Pan,' not as sentimental," Elice says. "There were puns and alliterations, irreverent humor, songs and ditties and anachronisms. I thought it would be fun to apply that to what Dave and Ridley had written."

The result is a distinctive mix that isn't easily explained to unsuspecting theatergoers.

"I tell people it's a beautiful story where you're going to see characters become the ones we know and love," says Joey deBettencourt, who plays Peter in the national tour production. "And it's also a contemporary vaudeville show with a little bit of everything — slapstick, music, dance and movement. That's what I like about it."

One of the big changes made to the plot involves the orphaned boy at the heart of it. He is identified as Peter in the first paragraph of the Barry/Pearson book and is a confident, avian fellow in no time.

"I reconceived the story," Elice says, "to make it about a boy on the verge of maturity. He is filthy, feral and frightened, the least likely character to be in charge of anything. He has been orphaned so long he doesn't remember ever having a name."

Sold off with some fellow orphans to the shady captain of a ship called Never Land, the boy finds a glimmer of hope after meeting Molly, daughter of a lord, aboard. She is everything he is not.

"Molly's a proto-feminist," Elice says, "a super-bright girl very much ready to grow up in the course of the play. She's the type who would have been too smart for her own good and would never have had any friends."

Molly knows something about starstuff and other mysterious things, which Peter begins to learn about, too, amid run-ins with pirates and even stranger (and funnier) threats.

"At the end, the girl has become a full-fledged starcatcher, and the boy has become Peter," Elice says. "I wrote the play with that hero's journey in mind."

This serious side to the work appeals to deBettencourt.

"I grew up with the Disney movie," he says. "What fascinated me as I got older and read the J.M. Barrie story was how it is a lot darker than the movie. The cool thing this play does is bring in a little more of that dark edge. It gives a deeper element to the characters. The Peter in the play feels real to me."

"Starcatcher" leaves off with Peter deciding to remain on the island, where he can be a boy forever and learn to fly (he enjoys one brief airborne moment in the show, though not in the way you'd expect). Molly chooses to return to England, where, we learn, she will eventually become the mother of a girl named Wendy.

Before the final curtain, a deliciously nasty pirate leader called Black Stache (on account of his Groucho Marx-worthy facial hair) loses an appendage, which lets us know he will become Captain Hook. But that loss is not the result of a duel with Peter, as traditional Peter Pan legend has it.

"I was writing this play while the media was just getting around to challenging the idea that there were WMDs in Iraq," Elice says. "It got me thinking that maybe the story of the hook was just something J.M. Barrie told us, that it's not actually true. So I decided I'm just going to make up an alternate version."

No spoiler alert here. Suffice it to say that Elice concocted one of the show's biggest surprises.

"Nobody sees it coming," he says. "It has become this great comic set piece for the actors who play the role of Stache. It's now known as the 'Hand Aria.' "

Throughout the play, humor and seriousness mix to telling effect. The most sobering moment comes near the end, when Peter says, "Grown-ups lie. They lie and then they leave." Even with all the amusing antics that go before, that line stings.

As for the funniest scene — or at least a tie with the severed-limb business — that involves a chorus line of former fish who, exposed to starstuff, are now mermaids.

"I tell people you must be in your seat when the second act starts, or you will miss the best thing in the show," Barry says. "I just love the mermaid song."

The production number Elice and composer Wayne Barker devised evokes British music hall and pantomime routines. That it involves drag and wacky costumes — "Literally made out of garbage, bits of flotsam and jetsam from the sea," Elice says — just adds to the jolt.

Even less-splashy elements in the production have a way of standing out, partly because, in our era of aggressively high-tech set designs, they're so simple and subtle. The actors use ordinary objects, or just the power of suggestion, to conjure up scenic imagery. A piece of rope, for example, gets a particularly versatile workout.

"Every kid knows what it's like to pretend," Elice says, "and every adult knows what that was like for them when they were kids. That old muscle is still alive in all of us."

One of the cast members using those muscles is Annapolis native Luke Smith, who plays Stache's trusty first mate, Smee.

"I completely bought into it the concept," Smith says. "It's wonderful doing this kind of theater. For us, 21/2 hours go by so quickly, you can't believe it. And it's a great opportunity for kids and adults [in the audience] to find their inner child."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Peter and the Starcatcher" opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday and runs through May 18 at the Hippodrome, 12. N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $25 to $85 (plus fees). Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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