If you’ve thought to yourself “I will never see another rip-off of the Peter Pan story ever again”, I totally understand where you are coming from. And I definitely urge you to reconsider and see the exuberant and supremely-crafted Maryland Ensemble Theater production of Peter and the Starcatcher, written by Rick Elice, with music by Wayne Barker, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.
Directed by Julie Herber, this version of the well-known story is a prequel of sorts, tracing Peter Pan’s rise from a poor, cowed orphan boy to the confident leader of the lost boys. Rich in humor, filled with magic, and never boring, theater goers of all ages will enjoy the story, get caught up in the stage combat (including a boxing match and a duel between a sword-fighting pirate and a plunger-waving Peter), and leave feeling better than ever about the story of Peter, Wendy, and the lost boys.
When you enter the intimate theater, you can’t help but notice the set, created by Cecilia Lee, which has a whimsical nautical feel, perfect for the ship setting where much of the story takes place. It takes over the theater and helps to instantly set the time and place. Throughout the show, I loved how the actors used simple props such as rope and their bodies to delineate different spaces and rooms within the set. In fact, I laughed out loud the first time the actors took out a rope and simply by holding it up with their hands and anchoring it with their feet, created a room on the ship. It was effective and amusing all at the same time, but only a show with a cast as strong as this one would be able to make the conceit work as well as it did. Throughout the show, the rope became a boxing ring, waves, the famous crocodile of the story, and a host of other things I can’t even remember.
Peter and the Starcatcher is truly an ensemble production with many of the actors playing multiple roles effortlessly, from pirates to British officers to mermaids to the natives found on a distant island, with very little in costume changes and mostly the strength of their acting abilities. Particularly memorable performances were given by Joe Jalette as “Black Stache” the prototype for Captain Hook, Matt Lee as the boy who would become Peter Pan, and Caitlin Joy as the only female cast member, playing the apprentice starcatcher, Molly Asher. Joe Jalette is both amazingly restrained and outrageously bizarre as Black Stache, so named for his big black moustache.
The relationship between Peter and Molly, who are both meant to be around 13 years old, develops with just as much awkwardness as a relationship between two young teens should, as Molly, a born leader, coaxes the formerly silent Peter to take his place as the head of the group of boys. Robert Leembruggen as Black Stache’s second-in-command Smee, Matt Harris as the romantic Alf, and Thomas Scholtes playing Mrs. Brumbrake (the only other female role) also bring in the laughs and keep the action moving.
While it isn’t a musical, Peter and the Starcatcher has a few songs and the actors are accompanied by Pianists RayLee Peterson and Jonas Dawson and Percussionist Micki Dawson, who add much atmosphere to the production by using the instruments to add the sounds of things such as thunder or waves, which at times makes the performance feel more like a movie than a play. Musical Director Jonas Dawson took the songs, which are meant to be humorous, rather than beautiful or poignant, and lets the talented cast take it to the limit of silliness. My favorite was “Mermaid Outta Me” in which the entire cast dresses (I’m using that word loosely) like a band of mermaids with very random items used as the mermaid’s “shells.” In fact, I’ve gotta give props to Costume Designer Stephanie Hyder for this funny addition to the show as well as for the rest of the costumes, which added just the right touches to each character’s personality, from Black Stache’s appropriately striped pirate pants to the costumes of the stuffy British officers.
There are some really nice audience interactions in this show, making it feel more immersive than a “regular” play. At one point, the entire audience let out a loud “ooooh” when a particularly good insult was given and everyone gasped when Molly kissed Peter. One of the themes of Peter and the Starcatcher is summed up by the line “Things are only worth what you’re willing to give up for them” and I think you’ll be happy to give up a few hours of your day to see Peter and the Starcatcher by Maryland Ensemble Theatre. It is not just another of the many Peter Pan sequels, prequels, retellings, or reimaginings. It’s a theater experience that will make you laugh and sigh and be thankful that you relaxed your ban on Peter Pan retellings just this once. Go see it!
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.