You think you know somebody, and then what happens? You find out he got his name from the very pirate who’s out to kill him. And the pirate? You find out he got that hook on the end of his arm because he’s a klutz.
I guess everyone has a backstory. Much as the blockbuster musical “Wicked” supplies the unwritten history of the witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” the comedy “Peter and the Starcatcher” fills in the blanks on Peter Pan. So if you’re wondering how a lost boy can stay lost forever, the answer’s at the Walnut Street Theatre.
And if you’re not, well, reconsider. Rick Elice’s pun-laden, shtick-filled play — he also wrote the script to “Jersey Boys” – is getting an all-out treatment at the Walnut, where a top-notch cast with a youthful vigor has the right idea: They’ll never grow up.
But don’t get the wrong idea – “Peter and the Starcatcher” isn’t just another innocent Disneyfied look at what leads an impish boy to fly into your neighborhood and alight on your daughter’s bedroom windowsill. It’s a glib account that ends some time before J. M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan tale takes off. Its glib side is what entertains adults; the story and its characters, I bet, attract the kids. And everyone buys into the general nonsense.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” begins when three orphan boys (played by Brandon O’Rourke, who will eventually become Peter; Davy Raphaely and Matthew Mastronardi) are put on a dingy ship headed to a faraway island, to be sold as fish bait to the island’s king. At the same time, another posh ship is leaving for the same place, and identical suitcases are swapped as the ships depart. One has the highly-prized goods of Queen Victoria. It ends up on the creepy ship with the orphan boys.
A race ensues once the key players discover that there’s been a swap. At sea, pirates take over the posh ship and want the queen’s belongings – the suitcase seems to contain a rich trove of Victoria’s secrets. But of course, it’s now on the other, crummy ship. All the seafarers meet head-on at the island destination, raise a ruckus and become affected by star dust – a magical commodity that means the playwright is allowed to do virtually anything he wants.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” had a modest run on Broadway four years ago, and won four Tony Awards for its design and another for its supporting actor, Christian Borle, who cemented his Broadway reputation in an over-the-top portrayal of the leading pirate, Black Stache. (Black Stache eventually becomes Captain Hook, and it’s no spoiler to write that “Peter and the Starcatcher” includes an alligator and a clock with very loud ticks and tocks.)
The show has a fact-laden narrative in its first half, and the facts can get lost in the general stage hubbub – on Broadway and at the Walnut, the plot is convoluted from the get-go. But what follows intermission is a rollicking, much more satisfying second half – leave ’em laughing, the way “Starcatcher” does, and everyone tends to forget the bulky set-up.
Bill van Horn directs the show with flair – and a wink to the audience indicated in the script and nicely delivered by the actors. Todd Edward Ivins’ set is an impressive structure with distinctive wooden slats – it serves well as the scene of both ships, but seems a static backdrop once we’re on the island.
In a portrayal that drips impressively droll, Ian Merrill Peakes has a great time with his character, Black Stache, and so do we. The three lost boys are swell, and so is Michaela Shuchman as the girl who – when the real Peter Pan story begins, if real is a word that applies – becomes Wendy. An A-list of fine players, mostly from Philadelphia’s acting corps, rounds out the cast. In this show, an earth-bound Peter Pan simply sails. When “Peter and the Starcatcher” actually takes off, it flies.
_“Peter and the Starcatcher” runs through May 1 at Walnut Street Theater, at Ninth and Walnut Streets. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.