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The evergreen Peter Pan first appeared as a single chapter in J.M. Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird. Pan subsequently took over the story and shows no signs of aging or disappearing from the canon. For the holidays, he’s here again in Delaware Theatre Company’s ebullient production of Peter and the Starcatcher.
As the play opens, the company sets the scene, story-theater style, in Victorian England. Lord Aster (Scott Langdon) and his precocious teenage daughter Molly (Campbell O’Hare) are boarding separate sailing vessels: Aster on the swift Wasp and Molly on the slower Neverland. (Aha, the Peter Pan story origins begin.)
Each ship has an identical trunk, one filled with sand and the other with a mysterious cargo called “starstuff,” a celestial substance so powerful it can never fall into the wrong hands. Aster (a Starcatcher) is charged with the starstuff’s safe delivery, but the trunks are deviously switched.
On board the Neverland is the young unnamed orphan Boy (Gabriel W. Elmore) who will become Peter, shipped with his mates to a distant island. The boys are discovered by Molly, a Starcatcher-in-training who intuits the trunk’s precious cargo. The Neverland is commandeered by the pirate Black Stache (Michael Doherty), a villain-wannabe determined to claim the treasure. Multiple obstacles and hijinks ensue as Molly and Peter work through teenage angst and mutual attraction to save it.
This grown-up prequel to the Peter Pan story is based not on Barrie’s original but on a successful 2004 children’s book, Peter and the Starcatchers, the first in a series co-written by friends and prolific writers, novelist Ridley Pearson and humorist Dave Barry. (Of note, Barry started his career at West Chester’s Daily Local News and worked at Philadelphia’s Associated Press bureau.)
Their novel was conceived for the stage by directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and scripted in 2009 by Rick Elice (Rees’s husband), with music by Wayne Barker. After a successful regional run, Peter and the Starcatcher hit Broadway in 2012, earning a record nine Tony nominations, winning five, and going on to become a theatrical staple.
While Elice’s script retains the YA book essence—appealing youthful protagonists who triumph over insurmountable odds—it’s also many other things: a bittersweet tale of loss, a piratical looking-for-the-treasure-chest adventure, a satirical romp through the mores and jingoism of Victorian England, and a fairy tale. But in addition, a big part of the script to be reckoned with by any producer is that it’s an American version of that great British theatrical romp, the pantomime, or “panto.”
An American panto
At the holidays, pantos appear regularly in Britain and increasingly in America, as theaters look for holiday offerings other than A Christmas Carol. But pantos are not soothing theatrical experiences. They are crazy romps (generally sending up a familiar tale) filled with farcical elements, topical references, camp theatrics, suggestive dialogue, and rowdy behavior. And they are propelled by The Dame, a stock character whose origins lie in both commedia dell’arte and the vaudeville music hall.
In Starcatcher, this character is Black Stache, the wincing pirate who dominates the play’s second half and chews up the scenery, literally and figuratively. More than 100 characters are portrayed by this company of 12 amazingly versatile actors. Standouts include O’Hare as Molly, undaunted and portrayed without a trace of treacle; Elmore as the lonely, conflicted Boy who will become Peter Pan; and Doherty with his over-the-top theatrical antics.
Another Matt Silva success
Propelling the show are two hardworking, gifted musicians: keyboardist Jennifer Peacock (also music director) and percussionist Chris Devany. On elevated platforms across the stage from one another, they often seem like more than two, and they also produce wonderful Foley-like sound effects.
Steve Pacek keeps the company swirling through the nonstop action with his inventive choreography. The show’s lights (Alyssandra Docherty) and setting (scenic designer Chris Haig) often verge on the magical, and costume designer Rebecca Kanach runs the sartorial gamut from Victorian to over-the-top music hall in a show-stopping vaudeville number.
The often-frenetic activity of this intricate, complex show is realized with panache and intelligence by the sure hand and clever direction of Matt Silva, DTC’s artistic director. Last season, Silva mounted a similarly inventive Man of La Mancha which snapped up Barrymore awards, and many members of that company and creative team are again here with him.
Exceptional theatrical work
Dynamic as this production is, there are two things to take under advisement. First (which may sort itself out) is that the sound mixing often nearly obliterates the actors, especially during some of the quicker, wittier dialogue. Second, because of the show’s panto roots, some characterizations and music-hall-style performances may be offensive, and the double-entendre dialogue is often quite racy.
That said, if you’re ready to engage in the playfulness and tall tale-telling with which Starcatcher abounds, you’ll be in the hands of a first-rate company doing exceptional theatrical work. This is the kind of play that the whole company must undertake with absolute certainty in their work, which they absolutely achieve. And throughout, there is unexpected satisfaction in uncovering the cleverly placed backstory references of Peter Pan tales to come.
In the theater lobby is a full-size resin cast of Fearless Girl, the famous work by Lewes, Delaware sculptor Kristen Visbal, referencing Molly (the play’s heroine) and representing “all fearless, strong, and brave girls and women alike.”
What, When, Where
Peter and the Starcatcher. By Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, with music by Wayne Barker; directed by Matt Silva. $32-$70. Through December 24, 2023, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
Delaware Theatre Company is wheelchair-accessible, with wireless assistive listening and large-print programs available. For wheelchair seating, notify the box office. There will be a relaxed performance of Peter and the Starcatcher on Wednesday, December 20, at 2pm.
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