Pioneer Theatre Company's production gets off to a muddy start but hits its stride in the second act, when the ensemble relax into their roles and slow down the line delivery. Everyone is going at such a fast clip during the first act that it's hard to catch the words, especially through the English accents.
Rick Elice's play, based on Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's popular novel, relates the backstory of James M. Barrie's beloved classic "Peter Pan" and answers crucial questions: How did Peter get his name? How did the Black Stache lose his hand and become Captain Hook? Where did Tinker Bell come from? What is starstuff? How do you become a leader? And why is that crocodile ticking?
The characters in "Peter and the Starcatcher" are looking for something. The orphan who becomes Peter is searching for a home where he "can just be a boy for a while." Motherless Molly wants to prove she is old enough to take responsibility and be respected by adults; she becomes a mother to the orphans. Black Stache, the poetic pirate, needs to find a hero to turn him into a memorable villain. "Without a hero, what am I?" he asks Peter. "Ruthless but toothless."
Director Jenn Thompson creates striking stage pictures: a crate full of boys hanging upside down and dropping out, Molly and her nanny crowded into a life preserver. Ladders on platforms become ships that spin and collide, rippling blue cloths are waves, and characters fight with plungers and umbrellas.
The show's dozen ensemble members move easily around the stage to tell the story. Perhaps because they have to concentrate on the action in the first act, their character distinctions become much sharper and funnier in Act II. Liam Forde's Boy is resourceful and inquisitive, gaining confidence as he meets challenges. Justine Salata's take-charge Molly is competitive, yet compassionate. Leo Ash Evens is outrageously flamboyant as the Black Stache, milking every comic moment. Austin Archer and Jake P. Evans are alternately supportive and silly as Boy's orphan companions, Prentiss and Ted. Oliver Wadsworth's prissy, alliteration-loving Betty Bumbrake finds her perfect match in Redge Palmer's overly attentive Alf, who leaves a definite impression wherever he goes. Jeff Gurner and Howard Kaye are hilariously inept as Fighting Prawn and Hawking Clam, the natives whose language is a pastiche of Italian dishes.
George Maxwell's stark first-act set transitions fluidly to the full moon and lusher vegetation of Act II. Michael Gilliam's spotlighting keeps our attention firmly focused, and Carol Wells-Day's costumes are rustically eclectic. Joshua Hight supplies an encyclopedic range of ship and island sounds. Patricia Wilcox's choreography in the mermaid number is clever and campy.
"Peter and the Starcatcher" is a refreshing jolt of theatrical magic in our commercial and cynical world. Its maxim, "To have faith is to have wings," invites us to re-examine our lives with the open eyes of a child.