Imagination reigns supreme as South Coast Repertory presents Peter And The Starcatcher, fabulous news indeed for those who may have missed the play’s Broadway National Tour or for those like this reviewer who simply couldn’t resist a second chance to spend a couple of hours with Peter Pan in his pre-Neverland days.

petermini4 Based on Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s best-selling 450-page children’s novel Peter and the Starcatchers, Rick Elice’s stage adaptation takes us back to the height of the British Empire, introducing us to Starcatcher* Lord Leonard Aster (Allen Gilmore), his spunky daughter Molly (Gabrielle McClinton), and Molly’s prim but not always proper nanny Mrs. Bumbrake (Tony Abatemarco), all three about to set sail for the kingdom of “Rundoon,” though not all on the same ocean vessel.

Charged with keeping a watchful eye on a trunk filled with precious cargo belonging to none other than Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Lord Aster will be voyaging aboard The Wasp, the world’s swiftest clipper, captained by Robert Falcon Scott (J. Paul Boehmer).

Meanwhile, Molly and Mrs. Bumbrake will be setting sail aboard the considerably more sluggish The Neverland, transporting with them a decoy trunk filled only with sand.

Naturally, Trunk A ends up on Ship B, and vice versa, a flip-flop sure to lead to comical consequences.

petermini2 Also along for the ride aboard The Neverland are hero-in-training Boy (Wyatt Fenner), big-talking Prentiss (Paco Tolson), and food-crazed Ted (Miles Fletcher), a trio of orphans sold into servitude to Neverland captain Slank (David Nevell) by dastardly orphanage schoolmaster Gremkin (Christian Barillas).

peterpro1 This being a Peter Pan prequel, there’s also a band of pirates with names like Alf (James MacEwan), Smee (Kasey Mahaffy), Mack (Barillas again), Sánchez (Barillas once again), and the terrifying, aptly named Black Stache (Matt McGrath), who’d be the spitting image of Captain Hook were it not for his two functioning hands.

Finally, there are tropical island natives Fighting Prawn (Barillas in a fourth role), aka King Of The Mollusks, aka son of Jumbo Prawn and Littleneck Clam, and Hawking Clam (Nevell), aka son of Fighting Prawn and Sweetnsour Shrimp.

Along the way, Peter And The Starcatcher introduces us to a secret bird language spoken only by dodos (and by Lord Aster and Molly), a pair of magical amulets (the next best thing to a Verizon mobile), a flying cat that only just happens to look like the strings of a mop, and some mostly not-so-feminine mermaids whose second act opening number turns Peter And The Starcatcher, however briefly, into a great big Broadway musical (thanks to composer Wayne Barker).

peterpro2 Any plot synopsis can only begin to suggest the many wonders of Elice’s play, whose 300-plus performance Broadway run scored it a Best Play Tony nomination (and a win sweep in all four design categories) in addition to that rarity, an Equity National Tour of an actual, honest-to-goodness play.

And what a play it is.

Like Wicked before it, Peter And The Starcatcher answers long-posed questions about storybook characters’ pre-fairytale lives. Wicked cued us in on how a lonely green girl became a Wicked Witch and how the most popular boy in school got transformed into a Scarecrow. Peter fills us in on how our young hero came to fly and to remain forever a boy. And if you’ve ever wondered about the real reason Captain Hook lost his hand, well it has nothing at all to do with a crocodile.

peterpro6 Peter And The Starcatcher’s abundant pop references may whoosh over kids’ heads (the show is officially recommended for ages ten and up), but adults will relish how Kelis’ “Milkshake,” Sally Field’s “You like me, you really like me,” Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” and countless more find themselves into Elice’s script, along with “FYI” and “TTFN” (that’s “Ta-ta for now”). And what better way to describe a missing treasure chest than as being “as elusive as the melody in a Philip Glass opera?”

Still, delicious as Elice’s script is, much of Peter And The Starcatcher’s cross-country success rests on the shoulders of whichever director and design team take charge, and this latest, from-the-ground-up Peter is guaranteed to keep audiences enthralled from fanciful start to magical finish thanks to physical comedy master Art Manke (who not only directs but choreographs with supreme imagination and flair) and a topnotch team of production designers.

peterpro5 Rarely if ever have theatergoers been provided with more opportunities to let their childlike imaginations soar than they are offered in Peter And The Starcatcher, where scaffolding can represent anything your mind’s eye might see, where a rope held just-so can outline a door, and where a handheld model of a great ocean vessel split in two can simulate the real thing. And yes, Peter does fly, and more than once, without a cable in sight.

Those expecting the spectacular Technicolor Act Two scenic design surprise sprung upon Broadway and National Tour audiences’ eyes can be excused whatever initial disappointment they might feel at South Coast Rep’s simpler set, but there is method behind Michael B. Raiford’s scenic design, one which provides a unity between acts and does indeed allow our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

No, we don’t get our breaths taken away as we did when the Act Two curtain rose on Broadway, but Jaymi Lee Smith’s saturated post-intermission lighting is a more than adequate substitute and quite stunning throughout, as is Michael K. Hooker’s sound design.

peterpro3 Not surprisingly for anyone who has seen Angela Balogh Calin’s previous work, the costume designer extraordinaire once again works wonders at transforming actors into one character after another, and her ultra-curvy, flipper-wearing mermaids are a joy to behold, feather fans and all.

Equally delightful are the joyous performances delivered on the Segerstrom Stage.

Fenner, Fletcher, and Tolson simply could not make for a more appealing trio of orphans, with special snaps to Fenner’s Boy, the latest in a series of memorable creations from one of Southern California’s most gifted young actors.

Abatemarco is sheer bliss as Mrs. Bumbrake (doubling as a teacher turned mermaid), and Barillas and Nevel excel too in multiple roles each.

peterpro4 L.A. County High School for the Arts grad McClinton returns to her SoCal roots following Broadway and National Tour stints and she could not be a sassier or more charming Molly.

Boehmer, Gilmore, and MacEwan do fabulous work as well, and South Coast Rep subscribers can count themselves fortunate that Peter And The Starcatcher marks Mahaffy’s return, the oh-so versatile redhead adding his name to the many who’ve brought pirate Smee to hilarious life over the decades.

Last but not least is McGrath’s Black Stache, a role that scored its Broadway originator that  production’s sole non-design Tony. Matching the over-the-top brilliance he brought to Rocky Horror’s Dr. Frank N. Furter at The Old Globe, South Coast Rep’s McGrath steals so many scenes, he ought to be arrested for theft after every performance—and awarded his own Best Actor statuette.

And then there is music director David O, who not only coaxes terrific vocal harmonies from a cast not all of whom have musical theater backgrounds, but provides splendid running musical accompaniment with fellow onstage musician Joel Davel.

Philip D. Thompson’s accent coaching pays dividends in the cast’s multiple dialects, including Gilmore and McClinton’s fluency in Dodo.

Jennifer Ellen Butler is stage manager and Kristen Cruz is assistant stage manager. Jackie S. Hill is production manager.

Casting of this almost entirely L.A.-based ensemble is by the estimable Joanne DeNaut, CSA.

Rarely has a production proven as captivating for audiences young and old as Peter And The Starcatcher at South Coast Repertory. High schoolers exiting Tuesday’s performance were literally jumping with joy at what they had just experienced. Older adults may have exercised greater body control, but their inner joy was surely no less exuberant.

Peter And The Starcatcher has been called astonishing, dazzling, exhilarating, fantastical, joyous, and miraculous, and you can believe every word of the hype. It indeed is astonishing, dazzling, exhilarating, fantastical, joyous, and miraculous … and more. Much much more.

*Starcatcher: Someone whose mission it is to protect the Earth and all who dwell thereon from the awesome power of the magical substance called “starstuff”

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South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
May 19, 2105
Photos: Debora Robinson, Ben Horak/SCR

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