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'Peter and the Starcatcher,' playing the most excellent make believe at Gammage

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Billed as "A Grownup's Prequel to Peter Pan," the Broadway National Tour of 'Peter and the Starcatcher' opened an exhilarating show last night to an overflowing crowd of enthusiasts at ASU Gammage. Joey deBettencourt (Boy, Peter) and Jimonn Cole (the dastardly Slank) talked before the show about being leaders of a giant, onstage make-believe game.

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"It's not what you'd expect. It's like contemporary vaudeville," deBettnecourt began. Sounding like wide-eyed kids on a roller coaster, Cole added about the Tony Award winning show, "It's fast, fast storytelling. These amazing, innovative changes keep happening. You essentially watch an acting troupe morph right in front of you."

The play, based on the like-titled Dave Barry / Ridley Pearson novel, spouts Barry's sharp tongue-in-cheek humor through Pearson's lightning action, depicting Peter Pan's life before J.M. Barrie or Disney caught up to him.

In a brilliant adaptation full of surprises, the super speed show worked so well at Gammage because the crowd absorbed the story through multiple-sensory staging. That is, the creaking human-body walls, the simple rope boxing rings, the bird wing-flapping rubber gloves, and the neon-lit plastic toy ships all cozy up and contribute to the rapid-fire puns and acrobatic phrases that told the story.

DeBettencourt and Cole, like all of the scant 16 actors who never really exit or rest, played at least three different characters, changing mid-stage. Except for split-second effect, the lights never went down. Every new scene and prop change occurred in full view while the plot surged ahead. All of the stunts and stage tricks were exposed, somehow making the fantasy more engaging, rather than demolishing it.

A goodly part of last night's whirring magic was that all of the loud, lightning wit and constant, unexpected character switches all fit seamlessly together. Taking in the condiment squirt bottle and kitchen mop costuming, the bent fork and bottle cap set styling, feels like peeling back the brightest child's imagination and stepping into the fireworks inside his mind.

"With so much goofiness in a hilarious play," deBettencourt said, the challenge is ".... figuring out how to carry the emotional truth... when not to be stylized.... the time and places to be honest." DeBettencourt noted that he loves playing Boy (Peter) for exactly that reason. "He's not the funny one; he's grounded. I really like being that emotional through-line."

For Cole, personally, part of the unexpected is "a chance to dive into my dark side." As an actor often cast as the young cop, the good soldier, or the priest, he said exploring the evil and meanness in Slank (who imprisons and intends to kill Peter) "is fun and liberating."

The play's standout, swash-buckling comedian was the incomparable John Sanders as Black Stache. Like cookie dough putty in his one remaining hand, the audience snickered and cackled and roared, whistled and clapped, for Sanders. All these reactions occurred when his hand was unceremoniously severed from the rest of him, as he winced and writhed through a full two minute monologue comprised exclusively of repeated, "Oh my gods."

"This whole experience, for me, has been about how I, how everyone, can fit into the unexpected," said deBettencourt at the conversation's end. "Imagination can allow for magical change," agreed Cole.

The grand scale, delectable pretending continues through Sunday with seven performances still to go at ASU Gammage. The trick will be snagging a ticket before the show sells out.

-Jennifer Haaland

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