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“St*rcatcher”: Captivating, imaginative, magical but wordy.

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Peter and the Starcatcher

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Los Angeles, CA--- From “Big River” to “Hands on a Hardbody” the La Jolla Playhouse has been at the forefront of staging its Page to Stage program giving artists a platform to mount new and courageous works, some of which make to Broadway, beyond and back again. “Peter and the Starcatcher” is just one example of that success story.

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Like Gregory Maguire’s “Son of a Witch”, “A Lion Among Men” and “Out of Oz” (which I am currently reading), the back story is just as intriguing and interesting as is the more popular and well known musical, “Wicked” Based on L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz”. That too was made into the musical “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” first produced by MGM as a film in 1939.

Recently, another backstory has emerged. A new story play, “Peter and the Starcatcher”, by Rick Elice based on Disney’s “Peter Pan”. Written first as a play then followed by Disney’s animated cartoon, which has thrilled audience’s young and old for generations is the other such animal. Most familiar with the David M. Barry/ Ridley Pearson’s “Peter Pan” the boy Who Would Not Grow Up, will have few challenges following the story, convoluted and wordy as it is.

A recap. Kensington, London: Peter was spotted in the Darling residence one night listening in on the bedtime stories as read by Mary Darling to her children as they are getting ready for bed. In his haste to leave, he loses his shadow and when he returns to reclaim it, he wakes the oldest girl, Wendy. She obliges and reattaches it. He convinces her to go back to Neverland with him so she can in turn read bedtime stories to his gang of ‘Lost Boys. She and her brothers make a magical flight to Neverland where they encounter one adventure after another.

But before he/we ever meet Wendy there is a backstory. No, it’s more than a story, it’s a full on adventure starting from the beginning and starring all the characters in the “Peter Pan” tale long before we get to know them, as we would remember them. The puzzle, while watching this story unfold is to try and guess who the characters we meet in ‘Starcatcher’ evolve into.

Now thanks to Rick Elise who wrote the book, “Peter And The Starcatcher”, with Wayne Barker composing the music and direction by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) those who missed the story first time out of the chute at the Playhouse can see it at the Ahmanson through the 12th of Jan. where it is in an enchanting yet dark production of how it all came to be.

In the beginning there was darkness, a relatively empty stage and a scruffy looking bunch of actors. With bare bones sets (Donyale Werle) the actors set out on their course with nothing but some ropes, toy ships, trunks, ladders and a whole lot of ambition.

Lord Astor (Nathan Hosner), Molly’s (Megan Stern) father is about to embark on a secret mission aboard the Wasp one of the Queen’s fastest ships. It is carrying a trunk (one of two) that contains the Queen’s precious cargo. The ship’s captain is Captain Scott (Ian Michael Stuart) and they are bound for some far off kingdom.

An identical trunk (a decoy) loaded with sand is hoisted on the companion ship Neverland that travels much slower and is due to arrive at their destination later. In the meantime three orphaned boys from the Orphanage for Lost Boys are given to Captain Slank (Jimonn Cole) to help on the voyage. They are stored away in the dungeon.

Slank and his sidekick, Black ‘Stasche’ Moustache, (John Sanders) are given the task of watching over Molly. She is on board with her Nanny Mrs. Bumbrake (Benjamin Schrader). It is here before anything gets moving that the trunks become the object of discussion and distraction in a little too much back and fourth play before the production actually gathers its high-sea wings.

Finally this fantastical adventure begins with a whole lot of ‘starstuff’, pirates, orphan boys, Molly’s nanny and Molly. They are ready to sail. The action gathers speed at sea at an oft times a high energy pace that eventually lands both ships head to head in a shipwreck that has all the characters and ‘the trunks’ ending up on the Wasp where eventually all the characters find themselves shipwrecked on an island with more outrageous adventures.

Light and sound designer’s Jeff Croiter and Darron L. West make the visuals on the high seas the storm and the special effects look more than realistic. (Both won Tony’s for their work.)

What goes on on the ship and beyond is a prelude to the final installation we get to see in the animated film or ambitious touring and local theatre productions. Molly and Peter no last name yet… (Joey deBettencourt) become inseparable friends along with the other lost boys who are bound for more misery than they can imagine. Peter and the boys become somewhat of a family to Molly, who continues to read them bedtime stories.

While Molly feels growing pains and grownup and becomes something of a mother figure to the boys, Peter try as he may, just can’t seem to or won’t grow up. And because he saved Fighting Prawn’s life, he was allowed to remain on the island forever.

“Starcatcher” also highlights conditions in Victorian England where poor orphaned children were pawns of society; maltreated malnourished and given up on. I know this sounds like a downer, but it speaks the truth about the times and does veer a bit from the whimsical.

As the creators have capitalized on the cruelty and injustices with scenes from dungeons, punishment and isolation for wrongdoing, they also throw a few little goodies in having to do with current state of affairs. Sharp eyes and ears will catch references to Starbucks Coffee, men dancing in drag (at the top of the second act) gags, high comedy, low bawdy humor, puns a little vaudeville, some verse and verbal hijinks.

A full ten to fifteen minutes of ‘Oh, my god’ prostrations and howls bark from Sanders as Black Stache agonizes over his lost hand. This exercise just about brings the house down. Sanders has it to perfection as in how many different tones, intonations and screwed up faces does it take to say omygawd? Remember Captain Hook? Well?

The second act comes alive with colorful animals, mermaids (in drag) and more vegetation than one can imagine or eat. They are on an island where Fighting Prawn (Lee Zarrett) head of the tribe of Mollusks live. More adventures ensue with Fighting Prawn. Peter saves Fighting Prawn’s life and the leader allows Peter to stay on the island forever.

Peter gets a last name; he falls a little head over heels for Molly but can’t seem to bring himself around to any kind of maturity. The two remain friends with Peter staying ‘forever young’ as the boy who couldn’t grow up.

All in all, the twelve actors who play more characters than I could count pull off the stunt in a remarkable tribute to the original. And while very wordy, it’s a feast for the eyes and an experience I wouldn’t mind seeing if say “Son of a Witch” had the same creators and pulled the same caper off to that amount of success.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the rest of the creative crew. Paloma Young’s costume design consist of a little bit of this and a little bit of that looking more salvageable junk, plastic toys, bottle caps, popsicle sticks and an assortment of discs. Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum is responsible for the flight design and Andy Grobengieser is music director. This five-time Tony Award winning musical play is worth a look see.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through January 12, 2014

Organization: Center Theatre Group

Phone: 213-972-4400

Production Type: Story Theatre

Where: 135 N Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA downtown L.A.

Ticket Prices: $2.00-$110.00

Web: centertheatregroup.org

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre

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