The kid spirit in putting together "Peter and the Starcatcher" was not unlike the gang of Lost Boys that are featured in this playful prequel to "Peter Pan."
The process, which started seven years ago with casual discussions, eventually turned into a series of imaginative and free-wheeling development stages that would result in an off-Broadway production that quickly transferred in 2012 to Broadway, where it won five Tony Awards.
The fanciful show, whose national tour comes to Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts Feb. 18 to 23, is based on the children's book written by humorist Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.
Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, thought there may be a stage show based on the book and assembled a creative team to, in essence, play around with that idea of a stripped-down, no-frills, story-theater version of the tale of the boy who won't grow up, his orphaned buddies and the young girl who changes his life.
One of the team members was co-director Roger Rees, actor, director and former artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival who knew something about a lean theater narrative having starred in the legendary production of 1981's "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby."
To co-direct with Rees, Schumacher asked Alex Timbers, a graduate of Yale, who was just then becoming known for his puckish off and off-off-Broadway shows such as "Guttenberg! The Musical," "Heddatron" and "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant."
"I think what's great about the making of ['Peter and the Starcatcher'] is the collision of different points of view," says Timbers, also mentioning writer Rick Elice and movement director Steven Hoggett among the show's collaborators.
"We had the most wonderful time working on it," says Timbers during an interview from a rehearsal studio in New York where he is directing the new Broadway musical "Rocky," based on the Oscar-winning film.
Though in his mid-30s, Timbers can still strike one as a tall, thin, long-haired kid, more likely to assist rather than lead such a high-profile, multimillion dollar production. But looks can be deceiving and as he effortlessly glides between ageless adult and clever kid. It soon becomes clear in conversation that he is a man in charge — but in a collaborative spirit.
That's how he liked to work whether it's a low-budget downtown production or one set for the Winter Garden stage. The early development of 'Starcatcher," he says, is the perfect example, he says. It was a collaboration filled with a lot of, "Yes, let's do that!" among his creative colleagues.
"When we went to Williamstown [Mass. in the Berkshires] to first work on it, we got a bunch of non-Equity kids, grabbed about 15 props and just started making sequences," says Timbers. "By the end of that summer we had staged the beginning of the show, the scene in which Peter is thrown overboard and the ending where Peter 'flies' by climbing over people."
So in this open environment who decides what?
"It just emerges through the consensus of the best ideas, he says.
"I don't think you can get precious with ownership over ideas like direction and writing and things like that when you're in the rehearsal room," he says, adding that in many of his shows he hired actors who were also directors and writers because they brought so many of points of view to the creative process. "They all contributed to what the script ended up being. The key is to keep that spirit so the material feel so incredibly organic."
Since he was tapped for "Peter," Timbers went on to do other youth-friendly projects. In 2010 he directed two Broadway productions: "The Pee-wee Herman Show" and the wildly eclectic "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson."
Recent projects include the audience-immersive off-Broadway musical "Here Lies Love" with music by David Byrne about Imelda Marcos, a developmental project with The Muppets and "Rocky," now in previews and opening March 13.
The Manhattan-raised Timbers, the only child of a father "in investments and a mother who worked at Sotheby's," went to Yale as a film and theater double major. He headed the undergrad theater group, The Dramat, doing off-beat and experimental productions such as his "Brechtian and subversive" version of the musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which had all the secretaries pregnant and had the chairman of the board torn apart at the end.
But he was also interested in producing, too. After he graduated in 2001, he decided to be an intern to artistic director Lynn Meadow at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, getting a behind-the-scenes view on how a wide variety of shows are produced on Broadway and off.
He also realized that no one was going to hire him as a director because of his youth, so he decided in 2003 to form his own company — Les Freres Corbusier — where he could direct his own shows that stood apart from the others. "I discovered that I had to create my own opportunities."
The shows for the company were noted for their sometimes witty, sometimes arrested-adolescent style. In one of the company's first major reviews, The New York Times' Charles Isherwood called one of the productions "sophomoric" and "he meant it in an insulting way," says Timbers, "but I embraced that,"
His irreverent, off-beat directing style — and the eventual success or at least spotlight on those shows — gave him a brand where he became the go-to guy for a series of edgy, energetic and inventive theatrical productions, so far earning him two Tony Award nominations.
So it came as a surprise to some when Timbers was asked to stage the very big budget musical version of the iconic but sentimental and uplifting "Rocky."
At first, he thought the idea of making the boxing film a musical "insane."
Then he heard who would be involved in the show and thought, "Well, those are really smart people." (They included the musical team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and book writer Thomas Meehan.)
Then he went to a reading of an early version of the script and score "and I was completey blown away by it. At intermission, people were just weeping and when they got to the end for the final fight — with just two guys at music stands — well, there was a three-minute standing ovation.
"I might not be the first person people think of for some musicals, especially conventional musicals, but generally when they hire me they're looking for something different," he says. "What I love [about 'Rocky'] is that it's big time storytelling with a lot of heart but taken from the left-of center-approach thats exciting to me. But the DNA of this story fits perfecty into the musical form.
"I also love taking on these characters that have this place in our culture or in our pop culture, whether its Andrew Jackson or Imelda Marcos or Peter Pan or Pee-wee Herman or Rocky — and now that I did a workshop on the Muppets last year and you can put Kermit into that pantheon."
Timbers is also about to direct this summer his first feature film "Rosaline," starring Felicity Jones, "a comedic and revisionist look at "Romeo and Juliet," with a script by the writer of the popular indie movie "(500) Days of Summer." There's also a new musical version of "Romeo and Juliet," this time featuring the music of the late Jeff Buckley, called "The Last Goodbye," which had a run last year at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, also staged by Timbers.
And then there's perhaps a return to Muppet territory.
"PETER AND THE STARCATCHER'' plays The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, Feb. 18 to 23. Tickets are $22 to $76, not including fees. Performances are Tuesday to Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.nm. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Information at 860-987-5900 and www.bushnell.org.