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"Peter and the Starcatcher" at the Hippodrome

Terry Shapiro

“What was Peter Pan like before he met Wendy in J.M. Barrie’s famous novel?”  

The answer to that question can be found in "Peter and the Starcatcher," the musical that’s at the Hippodrome Theaterin Baltimore until May 18. Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see the production, and she brings us this review. 

The Rousuck Review: "Peter and the Starcatcher" at the Hippodrome 

Like its namesake, the story of Peter Pan seems to live on forever. But just how did this orphan boy end up on an island called Neverland, where he can’t grow up – but he can fly?

These questions – and more – are answered in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Rick Elice’s inventive, Tony Award-winning play at the Hippodrome.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” is based on a young adult novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. The book is a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic “Peter Pan.”

Personally, I found the book – which includes three ships and two trunks that get switched – rather confusing. The play narrows the three ships down to two, which helps.

The year is 1885. A trunk containing something called “starstuff” has wound up on an ill-fated British ship. Starstuff is extremely powerful and extremely dangerous in the wrong hands.

A girl named Molly discovers the trunk. She also discovers three orphan boys, one of whom will turn out to be Peter. Can Molly keep the trunk from the clutches of the dastardly pirate called Black Stache? 

If you don’t recognize Molly and Black Stache from “Peter Pan,” that’s because “Peter and the Starcatcher” takes place a generation earlier. 

Molly is the prequel’s best addition. She’s – quote -- “insatiably curious, insufferably bright,” as she describes herself on stage. Megan Stern plays her as a girl with gumption, a proto-feminist. This may be the Victorian Era, but Molly asserts herself from the very beginning of the play. 

It’s part of the show’s conceit that the children are played by adults. In the role of Peter, actor Joey deBettencourt channels his inner child even more convincingly than his Broadway counterpart did. 

As to Black Stache – he’s a vain, formal-speaking pirate. If that sounds similar to Captain Hook, the reason becomes clear late in the second act when Black Stache finds himself in great pain. With just three little words, actor John Sanders proves to be a pirate captain who not only steals treasure, he nearly steals the show.

But the most distinctive aspect of the stage adaptation isn’t the strong leads or the slightly streamlined plot. Frankly, I still got tangled up in the plot.

No, what sets this play apart is the way it’s staged. Co-directors Roger Rees and Alan Timbers use the narrative tradition of Story Theater and the minimalist tradition of Poor Theater. Twelve actors play 100 characters – not all of them human. And found objects make up most of the props and set.

There’s also lots of live music, written with period flair by Wayne Barker.

Ultimately, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is as much about the magic of make-believe as it is about the magic of starstuff. It’s the kind of theater in which the audience members become willing participants, using our imaginations to create a bird out of a rubber glove or the swelling ocean out of a piece of rope. The show is a natural for children, but for adults, well, for two-and-a-half hours, we feel the joy of never growing up.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.