Theatre review: ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ silliness will never grow old

Imagination is exalted in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a comedy-drama with songs that has moments of sheer silliness. It’s as if Monty Python’s Flying Circus has run amok in J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s book.

Based on a series of young adult novels by St. Louis mystery writer Ridley Pearson and humorist Dave Barry, playwright Rick Elise (“Jersey Boys”) has crafted an origin story of how Peter Pan came to Neverland, who are these Lost Boys, and how he met his nemesis Captain Hook as a highly theatrical high-seas adventure.

Familiarity with Barrie’s iconic characters is important, for the story overflows with people and scenarios that are hard to keep track of, as 12 performers assume a variety of roles in this 2009 play.

After all, Peter encounters pirates, island natives, mermaids, and fairies, not to mention the infamous crocodile.

The setting is 1885, during the reign of Queen Victoria. H.M.S. The Neverland and The Wasp are off on voyages to Rundoon. But danger lurks, chicanery is afoot, and sailing is anything but smooth.

The bare stage will become the ship’s quarters and the island on which it shipwrecks, including beach, mountain, grotto, and other places.

(I am assured by colleagues that the second time around brings a deeper appreciation for and understanding of the material. But if you are seeing it as a blank slate, there is much to process).

The whiplash in tone and styles, from perilous situations to broad comedy, takes some getting used to, too, and then superfluous musical numbers stop the action.

A nimble cast works the goofiness aspect for big laughs, and the antics of the flamboyant villain Black Stache had the audience shrieking. Jeffrey C. Hawkins’ scene-stealing reached new heights when he lost his hand, and improvised much of the humor not on the page.

The folks who must play it straighter, by virtue of their pedigree, are in fine form. Betsy Hogg is delightful as Molly, the daughter of Lord Aster, who becomes a friend and maternal influence on the Boy who would become Peter Pan, and Clinton Brandhagen as her father is properly noble and paternal on a secret mission for the queen.

Spencer Davis Milford’s work as Boy, who will never grow up, is exceptional. He displays the mischievous, lonely and compassionate qualities of Peter. His scenes with Molly are strong, and his work with the fellow orphans equally engaging. Andrew Carlyle, as the food-obsessed Ted, easily charmed the audiences.

Jose Restrepo as Smee and Andy Paterson as nanny Mrs. Bumbrake provide much humor, as does Nick Vannoy as the salty, beefy sailor Alf, who is obsessed with the nanny.

The second act opens with an outrageous musical number featuring guys dressed as mermaids, and it’s as elaborate as any Busby Berkeley movie. The costumes by David Kay Mickelson are a marvel here.

The play won five Tony Awards — costume, lighting, sound and scenic designs, plus Christian Borle as lead actor (Black Stache).

The technical prowess of the Rep’s team is flawless, and director Blake Robison has made sure the action flows well. The cast puts everything they have into entertaining the crowd.

The drawback here is the source material, for Elice’s framework is confusing to follow and the dialogue too verbose for its own good.

But audiences will remember the laughs first and the warm feelings evoked about family, whether it’s blood or one you’ve made out of necessity.

“Peter and the Starcatcher”

  • When: through Dec. 27
  • Who: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
  • Where: 130 Edgar Road St. Louis
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