Ever since he first soared from Neverland into the London bedroom of the bedazzled Darling children, Peter Pan has been enchanting us from the stage.
The ageless lad, and rebel ringleader of a band of “lost boys” living on a fantasy isle, was invented by J.M. Barrie in colorful stories he first spun for the young sons of friends.
Peter went on to become a beloved mythical figure for generations of children via Barrie’s hit 1904 play “Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” and his 1911 novel based on it, as well as the myriad live and screen adaptations they spawned. The kid even has a psychological syndrome named after his cocky refusal to mature.
Yet as tends to happen with a long-lingering myth, Barrie’s prototype has been embellished and updated. And in the captivating, multiple-Tony Award-winning Broadway play “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which comes on tour this week to the Moore Theatre, we learn something of his backstory.
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Former newspaper columnist and best-selling author Dave Barry helped launch Peter’s current flight back onto the pop-culture radar.
A 2004 novel Barry co-wrote, “Peter and the Starcatchers,” (plural) inspired Rick Elice’s lauded play. And while Barry gives all the credit for the theatrical version to Elice and the show’s inventive co-directors Alex Timbers and Roger Rees, his book set the stage for a drama taking place before young Peter ever sets foot in Neverland.
Barry cheerfully admitted recently, by phone from Miami, that in his own youth, “I was never a Peter Pan fanatic.”
“I was more the normal American person who saw the Disney animated film, and the televised versions of the Broadway musical starring Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby. And I knew the Peter Pan ride at Disney World.
“It never would have occurred to me to have anything to do with the Peter Pan story,” he continued, “ until my friend Ridley Pearson suggested we write a prequel. I thought it was a cool idea. He’d been reading ‘Peter Pan’ to his daughter and she asked him, ‘How did Peter meet [his arch nemesis] Captain Hook?’ Ridley didn’t have an answer.”
Neither Pearson (an author of popular suspense novels for adults) nor Barry (a Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe with some 30 books to his credit) had ever tackled a children’s story.
“We were just stupid and ignorant, and didn’t know what we were getting into,” Barry said with a laugh. “We’re not trying to be the heirs to the mantle of J.M. Barrie. We were just saying, here’s a story everyone knows that we could add something to. We never imagined the first book would be 500 pages long. Or that we’d write another one, and then another, and go on to stagger into a five-book series.”
In the series-opener, Peter is a boy traveling the high seas with some fellow orphans. On board the mysterious ship he is intrigued by a young girl, the intrepid Molly. Things get interesting as she tries to prevent a trunk of magical “starstuff” from falling into the hands of pirates — including the notorious Black Stache (for moustache) whose hand is whacked off (we’re not saying how). Captain Hook, anyone?
The novel goes on to portray Peter and Molly’s exciting adventures after being shipwrecked on a remote island. But for the freely adapted play, Elice condensed the story into a fast-paced, nautical yarn which, during a Broadway matinee I attended, tickled and enthralled adults and children alike.
It is the stagecraft, as much as the well-fueled plot, that makes the piece soar. Performed on a single, flexible set, adorned with vibrant lighting effects, “Peter and the Starcatcher” relies on ensemble story-theater techniques and low-tech props (ropes, kitchen utensils, toy boats, etc.) to conjure everything from heart-pounding chases to sexy mermaids to a ravenous crocodile.
Barry and Pearson kept an eye on the Disney-funded theater version but left the script entirely to Elice (who co-wrote the smash Four Seasons musical, “Jersey Boys”). When they attended an early workshop of the work, “We saw, essentially, the opening scene,” said Barry. “We were just blown away completely! I had no idea how much work goes into a play before the audience sees anything, all the working and reworking.”
By the time “Peter and the Starcatcher” (singular) had a successful tryout in San Diego, then moved to Off Broadway and eventually in 2012 to Broadway, Barry was one of its most enthusiastic fans.
“The staging, the dialogue, the incredible precision and humor in it — you just don’t see all those things packed so tightly into a stage performance, outside of a giant musical,” he marveled. “This is a dozen people on a stage doing an amazing amount of things with a small amount of stuff. It’s more theater per square inch than I’ve ever seen, with such madcap pacing.”
Barry had no trouble accepting the changes from book to script. “Rick took Peter in a different direction,” he noted. “Our kid is more like a plucky hero. His Peter is more angry, and bitter. I’m attached to our Peter, but his works well dramatically.”
As for the Black Stache/Hook figure, “we were told, ‘By the way, he’s going to be gay in the show.’ We just said OK, and we loved it.”
But perhaps Barry’s favorite character, in print and onstage, is Molly. “Ridley and I both have daughters, and we hated in the Disney cartoon how Peter’s friend Wendy was this simpering thing. We wanted a kick-butt little girl who isn’t afraid of Peter or anyone.”
Another chapter of Peter Pan’s ongoing saga may be in the works.
Barry says Disney is planning a live-action movie of “Peter and the Starcatchers,” the book. “It is out there that Gary Ross, who did ‘The Hunger Games,’ is writing the screenplay and directing. You never know with Hollywood, but that tells me it’s likely to happen.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org