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No Panning this Star Vehicle

Joey deBettencourt and Megan Stern in "Peter and the Starcatcher"
Joey deBettencourt and Megan Stern in "Peter and the Starcatcher"Jenny Anderson

Peter and the Starcatcher at the Ahmanson Theatre

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Never was there a flight of fancy fashioned with such thrifty (read cheap) fanfare! Or so the promoters of “Peter and the Starcatcher” want us believe. Oh! The power of the imagination, the ability to dream into existence treasure chests and pirate ships, islands, cannibals and mermaids when your available materials amount to recycled goods and maybe the upscale equivalent of a 99 Cent Store.

Granted, visually speaking there is considerably more to this inventive “Peter Pan” prequel than meets the eye, especially when balanced against, say, the kind of scenic opulence that Lez Brotherston employed during the recent quickie run of “Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty,” the Ahmanson Theatre’s last tenant pre-“Starcatcher.” Or even against the ingenious Savanah recreation of Richard Hudson and Julie Taymor for Disney’s “The Lion King,” currently shaking its mighty mane during an encore run at the Pantages.

But “Starcatcher” - which seems to proudly downplay or eschew its Disney Theatricals pedigree – is by no means assembled with saliva and wadded up chewing gum and to suggest otherwise is a kind of hype blinded madness.

Or maybe we’re all blinded by fairy dust. Or by that wonderful “starstuff” that powers both the Dave Barry/Ridley Pearson young adult novel on which “Starcatcher” is based and Rick Elice’s stage adaptation. You’ve got a dozen actors gallivanting across something like 100 roles. You’ve got everyday item props and clothing, from string to mixing bowls, from dishwashing gloves to mermaid bras fashioned out of items that were never intended to be mermaid bras. And you’ve got a single ever-evolving set underneath a musical hall proscenium arch. The Tony-award winning work by Donyale Werle (sets) and Paolma Wright (costumes) is – if not ingenious – certainly crafty.

But it’s not why people should catch this show. “Starcatcher’s” primary draw is two-fold. The enticement of J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” a story that everyone, everyone, EVERYONE knows is considerable. Who among a theater-going audience has never dreamed of flight of beating back adulthood, of battling pirates and rescuing damsels (or being a rescuing damsel?). As with many an origins story, Elice’s explanations for how iconic images or plots became iconic are meant to keep us alternately guessing and delighted. That the story is set in a kind of never-time where puns, wordplay and anachronisms can bubble out of every crevice helps considerably. With co-directors Alex Timbers and Roger Rees at the helm, “Starcatcher” has all sorts of tricks up its motley sleeves, and the play is most decidedly not exclusively aimed at the younger set who have to be urged to believe in fairies.”

Draw #2: the cast, of course.

In the character known as Boy (played by Joey deBettencourt), Elice has created a manchild and hero who is finding his way both in the story being told and - unbeknownst to him – in popular myth. The Admiral’s daughter Molly (Megan Stern) is Boy’s playmate, savior, mother and foil, all wrapped up in one spunky English accent-sporting package. Stern and deBettencourt deftly mix wonderment and sagacity, volleying it between them (and between a pair of orphans Ted and Prentiss played by Edward Tournier and Carl Howell. )

Dexterity, adaptability and the glimmer of inventiveness, of being in on the illusion are the hallmarks of a “Starcatcher” player whether you’re required to enact a brigand, a mermaid, or a gate post. Joining the aforementioned deBettencourt, Stern, and Tournier and Howell on this awfully big adventure are Jimonn Cole, Nathan Hosner, Benjamin Schrader, Luke Smith, Ian Michael Stuart and Lee Zarrett, as ship-shape an ensemble as a vaudeville-spinning, hyper-theatrical minded troupe ought to be.

Then there’s John Sanders, who is most decidedly not an ensemble player. Nor should he be.

Playing the lead pirate Black Stache, Sanders sports a black Groucho Marx mustache (befitting the name) smudged over his upper lip, merry mischievous eyes and a knack for hambone-ery. The man’s job is to hijack scenes by any means necessary, scripted or otherwise. A multi octave scale of the phrase “Oh My God!” following the slamming of a trunk makes for one of those great moments. Reams of young actors in the Kevin Kline profile figure to be polishing their skills on this part (beginning with Tony winning originator Christian Borle). Sanders is a gas.

Everybody knows that those in the theater world should be keeping a close watch on Elice (next up, the screen version of his “Jersey Boys” and a world premiere musical comedy “Dog and Pony” directed again by his partner Roger Rees and bowing next May at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. Between his reworkings of “Romeo and Juliet” both cinematic (“Rosaline”) and dramatic (“The Last Goodbye,”) Timbers is going in exciting new directions as well, as we kinda knew he would.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” figures to have a splendid and vibrant life of its own whether on a national tour with some bells and whistles not generally available or small and thrifty as smaller companies will no doubt start to attempt with regularity. Really, all anyone will need is some starstuff (which is invisible) and the willingness to believe. Still.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” performs 8 p.m. Tur.-Sat. 2 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun.; through Jan. 12 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. $20-$110. (213) 972-4400, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.