Did you know Neverland was a sailing ship before it was Peter Pan's forever home? Me neither. But that's just one of the fascinating details to emerge in Peter and the Starcatcher, Humboldt State University Theatre Department's season opener. It's a play with music (not a full-blown musical) that imagines a prequel to the Peter Pan story we all know and love, whether as a Disney movie, a stage musical or, in my case, an English pantomime. We also learn how Hook lost his hand, how the crocodile got his tick-tock, where Tinkerbell came from and, of course, how Peter became the boy who would never grow up.
Based on the first of a series of books by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry, the play brings together the stories of Molly Aster (the versatile Camille Borrowdale, last seen as Mowgli in Jungalbook), apprentice starcatcher and privileged daughter of Lord Aster, and a nameless orphan boy (a delightfully androgynous Benny Allen, reflecting a lifetime of Peter Pans played by female actors, perhaps?) who hates grownups because "they always lie."
The production opens with the 13-member cast in primary roles (every actor plays at least two characters) setting the scene for an enchanting and fantastical two-hour adventure. The aforementioned Lord Aster (a suitably aristocratic Victor Parra) has been appointed by Queen Victoria as custodian of a chest full of starstuff, a powerful magical substance captured by starcatchers as it falls to earth; we are informed that Her Majesty has no need of it "because she's British." This precious cargo will be transported to the designated disposal site in the remote kingdom of Rundoon on the world's fastest ship, the H.M.S. Wasp, captained by well-known adventurer Robert Falcon Scott (Colin Gibbs).
For safety's sake (this is a dangerous mission!), Mollie and her nanny, the alliterative Mrs. Bumbrake (Ayanna Wilson, in a wonderfully over-the-top performance) follow the Wasp on the slower, older Neverland with a decoy chest full of sand. The Neverland is, however, captained by the devious Bill Slank (an athletic and fast-talking Mickey Thompson), who has some very different ideas about the mission. Also on board are three boys, sold to Slank by lying schoolmaster Grempkin (a fittingly smart-mouthed Madison Burgett-Feagin, most recently in Dead Man's Cellphone) of St. Norbert's Orphanage for Lost Boys. Also on board are Mack, the world's most inept sailor (Lauren Zika), and kindly old seaman Alf (a genial and relatable, though somewhat wobbly-accented Matthew Hern, last seen as Baloo in Jungalbook). There is a brief struggle for leadership of the kid contingent between whiny-bully-coward Prentiss (an all-too-believable William English III) and Molly, rapidly and handily won by the determined Miss M.
But as the ships set sail, everyone's careful plans begin to unravel, starting with the takeover of the Wasp by notorious pirate Black Stache, played with fantastical flamboyance and marvelously mangled language by Maude Jaeb. Stache is ably supported in his evil endeavors by the exotically outfitted Smee (Ivan Gamboa, another Jungalbook alum with a gift for comic timing). Stache soon discovers that all is not as expected in the valuables department, setting the stage for shipwrecks, dramatic rescues, an exceptionally perceptive and talented ship's cat, and magical encounters in the Kingdom of the Mollusks.
Along the way, we meet Chief Fighting Prawn (Mickey Thompson in another strong performance), who speaks in a language largely composed of Italian restaurant menu items, a phalanx of high-kicking mermaids (yes, anything is possible if you believe!), and a super-mermaid/teacher (another diva-esque turn by Ayanna Wilson) who gives our hero some life lessons. We laugh as food-obsessed lost boy Teddy (Sarah Burfoot) tries to figure out how to eat a pineapple, and marvel as Molly and her father communicate in Dodo, Porpoise and Norse Code (resulting in some impressive Norwegian dialogue). And you probably don't want to know what happens when a crocodile gets a taste of starstuff.
Rick Elice's script is pure delight, overflowing with clever wordplay and sly references to the modern world. The set design is simple yet effective, giving context to the action without detracting from the performance, and the costumes are nothing short of stunning. Director Rae Robison and stage manager Roman Sanchez keep the action moving at a fast pace but the audience never feels left behind. Whether as sailors or mermaids, pirates or mollusks, the performers shift between characters seamlessly. The only real nit I have to pick is that the few ensemble musical numbers lack vocal clarity, and a few of the actors might have benefited from dialogue coaching.
Peter and the Starcatcher is an auspicious start to the new season; the students and faculty have set themselves a high bar with an imaginative and engaging production that reminds us of what's really important in life — and to never forget the magic. So clap your hands if you believe — I did, and I think you will, too.
Peter and the Starcatcher continues at HSU's Van Duzer Theatre Oct. 27, 28, and 29 at 7:30 p.m. and at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 30. Call 826-3928 for tickets.
The Rocky Horror Show plays at the Ferndale Repertory Theatre on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Oct. 29, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on Oct. 30. For more information and a schedule of rotating narrators (Michael Fields and Mark Lovelace among them), call 786-5483 or visit www.frt.org.
The Taming of the Shrew(s), takes a different perspective on the love-hate story of Shakespeare's classic. See the war of words at Redwood Curtain Theatre from Oct. 27 through Nov. 19. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.