Every child yearns to grow up and throw off the seemingly unbearable yoke of parents, teachers, priests and other bullies. Invariably, they realize too late that while the adult world is a place in which they can eat ice cream for dinner and stay up as late as they want, early onset diabetes and 7 a.m. personnel meetings are extremely harsh overlords.
J. M. Barrie tapped into this cruelly ironic dichotomy with his tales of the magical Peter Pan. Peter first appeared in Barrie’s writings at the dawn of the 20th century, and he’s been enchanting audiences of all ages ever since. The boy who refused to grow up has starred — and in some instances even played second or third fiddle — in numerous books, plays, radio programs, films, TV shows, video games and other assorted media over the ensuing years, and if the national Broadway tour of Peter and the Starcatcher is any indication, he’ll be flying, fighting and crowing for hundreds of years to come.
Following the zeitgeist that brings us superhero reboot movies with an exponentially increasing frequency (I mean, at this rate Superman, Batman and Spider-Man will be spending a Saturday in detention in something called The Breakfast of Champions Club by next summer), Peter and the Starcatcher is a prequel to the original Peter Pan story. Thankfully, and with a gratifyingly low level of angst, rather than Peter learning that with great power comes great responsibility, he gets great power with virtually no responsibility whatsoever.
Tasked with a secret mission by none other than Queen Victoria herself (God save her), Lord Aster (Nathan Hosner) and his precocious daughter, Molly (Megan Stern), set sail with a precious cargo. Well, actually only one of them sets sail with the cargo; the other embarks on a second ship with a decoy. Soon enough, both father and daughter find themselves set upon by nefarious types with designs on the treasure.
The dread pirate Black Stache (John Sanders) along with his sidekick, Smee (Luke Smith), take Lord Aster and the legitimate captain of the ship, Captain Scott (Ian Michael Stuart), hostage. Meanwhile, Molly discovers that the captain of her ship, Captain Slank (Jimonn Cole), is delivering three orphans (Joey deBettencourt, Carl Howell and Edward Tournier) to the island king to be his slaves … or worse. Molly’s minder, Mrs. Bumbrake (Benjamin Schrader), and her beau, Alf (Harter Clingman), prove to be little help, so it is up to Molly to suss out a way to save the day.
Though it is based on a widely known children’s property and is certainly family friendly — with the exception of one utterance of “bollocks” there’s nary a curse word to be found — Peter and the Starcatcher is really more of a grown up comedy. Aside from the occasional fart or poop joke, the humor bobs and weaves from pun to topical reference to self-aware wink and back again without breaking a sweat. It’s a Rube Goldberg symphony of limber laughter.
What impressed me most about this play, and it is a play that contains a few songs (most notably the campy triumph that opens the second act) rather than a musical proper, was its low budget élan. Though the Tony Award-winning lighting and sound design are deceptively complex, there are no special effects or even set to speak of. A rope becomes doors, windows and ocean waves. A flashlight becomes a faerie. Various kitchen implements become the breasts of shockingly bewhiskered mermaids. It’s a beautiful example of DIY theatre, and as such it is imminently adaptable for even the most modestly budgeted theatre company.
Everyone in the cast plays multiple roles, sometimes in back-to-back scenes, and they all carry off their parts commendably. As Molly, Megan Stern held my rapt attention every moment she was on stage. She is obviously gifted in the comedic arts, but she also evoked real and complex emotions when called on to do so. As the sinister yet superlatively silly Black Stache, John Sanders sticks the landing of every line delivery and gesture. He is one hell of an actor, and it’s easy to see why he got the nod to play the role on Broadway. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Peter and the Starcatcher plays at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts through Sept. 1. Tickets are $25-$90. For tickets or information, call 303-893-4100 or visit www.denvercenter.org.