If the thought of seeing Peter Pan onstage only conjures images of Mary Martin flying around in tights, “Peter and the Starcatcher” will certainly disabuse you of that notion.
Since J.M. Barrie first wrote the original Peter Pan stories a century ago, the tale has had many interpretations, but perhaps none as original as the one playing at Virginia Rep’s November Theatre. Adapted for the stage by Rick Elice from Dave Barry (yes, that Dave Barry) and Ridley Pearson’s novel of a similar name, the characters and themes are familiar, but this is an entirely new take on the Peter Pan mythos.
Here we get Peter Pan’s (Jeremy Michael Lagunas) backstory as an orphaned slave locked inside a crate with two similarly Lost Boys. They’re bound for a sinister fate until they encounter Molly Astor (Megan Graves), a brainy 13-year-old filled with feminist can-do. It turns out that she is an apprentice Starcatcher, meaning that she has been chosen by the Queen to protect the magical “star stuff.” This substance magnifies the good and bad traits of its users, meaning that pretty much everyone wants to get their hands on it, including the evil pirate Black Stache (Scott Wichmann).
With Craig Napoliello’s set of twinkling Edison bulbs and planks of wood that move like giant jaws, you’d expect “Starcatcher” to be heavy on the pyrotechnics, but it’s actually a surprisingly low-fi affair. Under Nathaniel Shaw’s direction, cast members line up to form a creaky boat, employ a rope to represent a boxing ring and the water’s edge, and use model ships and each other to enact a dramatic sea battle.
The spectacle here is created through old-fashioned stagecraft, and, as executed by the constantly moving cast of 12, adds considerably to the show’s sense of wonder.
This sense is embodied by Lagunas’ Peter, who begins the story as an angry and neglected orphan who rarely speaks. His sulky exterior is cracked open by Molly, and he soon becomes the eternal boy we’re all familiar with. The strong-willed Molly drives much of the show’s action, and it’s through Graves’ performance that we get a surprisingly touching moment in the show’s final act.
But “Starcatcher”’s most humorous performances belong to Wichmann as Black Stache and Robert Throckmorton as Mrs. Bumbrake. As the pirate captain prone to malapropism, Wichmann is in his element, chewing the scenery, playing off the audience and delighting in his character’s references to Michael Jackson and the “Milkshake” song. And Throckmorton – as he so often is – is cross-dressing and hilarious as Mrs. Bumbrake, a spinster suddenly turned amorous maid by the advances of Charley Raintree’s sailor Alf.
Elice’s script is so jam-packed with jokes and silliness – including a line of mermaids performing a Ziegfeld-style number (with amusing sea-inspired costumes by Jeanne Nugent), island savages with a food-inspired language and loads of wordplay – it has the power to disarm even the most cynical among us.
But perhaps the show’s most important element is one found all too rare in the theater these days: pure, exuberant fun.
Virginia Rep’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” plays through Oct. 25 at the November Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. For more information, visit va-rep.org or call 282-2620.