Does Peter Pan require an origin story? Audiences have accepted and delighted in J.M. Barrie's eternal boy for 111 years as-is. The failure of the big-budget film Pan this fall would appear to argue that no prequel is necessary. But before that flop, Webster Groves' own Ridley Pearson wrote the very successful young-adult novel Peter and the Starcatchers with his friend Dave Barry. This Peter Pan origin story was adapted for the stage by Rick Elice in 2009, and went on to win five Tonys. In its current incarnation at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Peter and the Starcatcher (it lost the final "S" along the way) proves to be be delightful.
Director Blake Robison and cast exult in the play's sense of wonder, its whimsy and its cultivation of heroism, which are three elements sadly missing from most entertainment directed at children. And while there are jokes for adults (including the single filthiest punctuation joke I've heard, which sailed harmlessly over the kids' heads), this is very much a story that will fire the imaginations of the young, however you choose to define that.
Now, about starcatching. Lord Leonard Aster (Clinton Brandhagen) is one of six-and-a-half starcatchers who exist in the world. Their duty is to acquire the bits of stars that fall to Earth to ensure they don't land in the wrong hands; this starstuff holds great power, and if an evil-hearted person got some, it could be enough to topple Queen Victoria and her empire. Within the confines of the play, this is the worst thing that could ever happen.
Lord Aster's daughter Molly (Betsy Hogg) is a bright and determined apprentice starcatcher. Hogg captures the shaky confidence of a thirteen-year-old quite well; she's bossy and fragile by turns. When her father goes forth with a trunk of starstuff, Molly gets the job of guarding a decoy trunk on another ship, which is captained by duplicitous Bill Slank (the wonderful Arturo Soria). Slank has a hold full of orphans, one of whom is named Mule (Spencer Davis Milford).
Molly meets this boy when she sneaks below the decks, which she does by jumping through a picture frame held by two members of the ensemble and landing in a pool of light. It's one of a dozen simple and beautiful tricks in this production that draw on the imagination of the audience to do the heavy lifting. A constellation of light bulbs hanging from the ceiling becomes stars, two model ships carried by crew members perform a high seas chase, and a cat puppet gets some spotlight time. It's make-believe of the sort familiar to children.
Mule wants to be free, and he wants a family that will give him a real name. Meeting Molly is the first step on that road, and he can sense it, but their meeting is interrupted by the pirate Black Stache (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), who wants the "great treasure" he believes is in the trunks.
Black Stache is prone to malapropism, which his right-hand man Smee (José Restrepo) quickly corrects. The actors who play these two are sheer magic together, Hawkins swaggering hither and yon while Restrepo grins helpfully and nods supportively while his boss struggles with logic and language. Black Stache fears that without a true hero to battle he'll only ever be half a villain, but he is already a brilliant comic foil.
Once the pirates arrive, the race is on to destroy the starstuff before it can be put to evil use. There is much nonsense, some cross-dressing and a big song-and-dance number with mermaids, all of which is riotous good fun. Along the way Molly and Mule learn what true heroism requires; the fact that both of them are heroic is worth noting. Molly achieves as much as Mule, who of course becomes Peter Pan ("a name as evocative as a Madeleine in a Proust novel!" according to Black Stache).
So, yes, Peter and the Starcatcher is necessary. It's fun, it's inspirational, and it is heroic. And beyond that, I'd feel awful for you if you never get to experience Smee and Black Stache.
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