Review: Thrilling, witty and innovative 'Peter and the Starcatcher' comes Sunday to Heinz Hall

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In Act One of "Peter and the Starcatcher," the Boy Who Would Be Pan has been taught that "life is meant to be horrible." He's such an insignificant orphan, he doesn't even have a name.

Don't worry, things get considerably brighter.

So bright in fact, that by the time an inexhaustible ensemble of 12 runs, jumps, sings, farts, dances, whirls, fights, crawls, falls in love and finally, transforms, it would be difficult to describe this latest PNC Broadway Across America offering as anything less than magical.

In Pittsburgh for the final stop on a year-long tour, this thrill ride of a play runs through Sunday at Heinz Hall. It is directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, with movement by Steven Hoggett, and based on the novel of the same name by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. There's a bit of music as well, some singing of sea shantys and a sparkly chorus line number backed by a two-man band.

"Peter and the Starcatcher" has been aptly billed as the "Neverland You Never Knew," and it begins, as so many adventures do, with a mission. Lord Aster (Nathan Hosner) has a task to perform for Her Majesty Queen Victoria (it's 1885), and his unsinkable 13-year-old daughter, Molly (Megan Stern) is miffed she cannot join him.

Instead, she will stay in the care of her nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake (a very funny Benjamin Schrader).

Too dangerous, says her father, who promptly places them in terrible danger as they board separate ships.

Played with the iron-spine will -- and accent -- of a young Kate Hepburn, Ms. Stern's Molly is more than up to the trials ahead. Indeed, she's the most competent person aboard either ship, and her eagerness to remind people explains why the girl has no friends at school.

She eventually meets Boy (Joey deBettencourt), one of three orphans destined to become "snake food" when their ship, the Neverland, reaches some exotic island.

To explain more of the plot is unnecessary. Suffice to say it involves pirates, identical trunks (one of which holds a rare treasure indeed) and themes both dark (abandonment) and light (what does it take to become what you want to be?) woven into the overall sunny fabric.

It's the execution of script, which has a LOT of literally moving parts, that particularly delights. A simple length of rope becomes a doorway, a roiling ocean wave, the grade of a ship's desk as it's tossed about at sea. A beat-up stuffed cat -- and we really are asked to use our imaginations here -- soars through the air.

With a Tony-winning set design by Donyale Werle that's so intentionally handmade-looking it could have its own shop on Etsy, "Peter and the Starcatcher" charms with its sense of innovation.

Unfortunately, the 2,600-seat Heinz Hall is too huge a venue for such an intimate staging. Particularly in the first act, when the lights are low and the chatter of dialogue flies about the stage like Tinkerbell, the story might be difficult for some to follow.

As anyone knows, the villain is really the star of any production. And here we have Black Stache, who seeks to become the most powerful pirate in a world where pirates really have gone out of fashion. If only he can get his hands on that trunk....

John Sanders has fun with the role; how could he not? Stache -- a name "on everyone's lips" isn't Captain Hook yet, but even now relies on his right-hand man, Smee (Luke Smith) to correct his stream of malapropisms.

He also has some of the funniest lines, sprinkled with anachronisms. At one point there is a reference to being "elusive as the melody in a Philip Glass opera."

Black Stache's best line, three little words but used to great effect over the course of 90 seconds, sparked the most appreciative roar of laughter from the audience Tuesday night.

"Peter and the Starcatcher" is about storytelling. Expertly staged with innovation and wit, it's about a Neverland you'll want to know.

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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