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REVIEW: The pleasures of Pan never grow old

September 11, 2015 at 5:00 AM

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When the late, great Roger Rees, the original co-director of "Peter and the Starcatcher" on Broadway, turned his attentions to the national tour of that hit Peter Pan prequel, he decided to cast mostly out of Chicago.

This was (and is) unusual for such tours — but in an interview in New York not too long before he died, Rees told me he found that young Chicago actors had an affinity for the material, capturing its innocence and the togetherness of the Lost Boys, but also its inherent sadness and fear of the dark.

In "Peter Pan," the Lost Boys are mostly a happy crew. But in Rick Elice's "Peter and the Starcatcher," based on the book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, there is a potent exploration of the loneliness of the orphan, a kind of tacit explanation of why so many great children's books follow the fortunes of courageous kids who somehow have found themselves on Earth without parents to kiss them good night. Such kids have sorrows, but they also learn self-reliance and embrace adventure.

Presently at the Drury Lane Theatre, director William Osetek is helming the first production of "Peter" that I've seen beyond the justly acclaimed original staging by Rees and Alex Timbers. This is not the typical programming at the Drury Lane, and at the Wednesday matinee, the audience felt a tad reticent, suggesting that Caleb Donahoe, who plays Boy, needs to grab the crowd more firmly by the arm, especially in Act 2.

"Peter and the Starcatcher" is a play with music but not a traditional musical. It's much less on the nose when it comes to realism than, say, the current Broadway musical "Finding Neverland." It's a piece that works better in a more intimate space. And its narrative is not hard to lose track of, should your mind wander.

Suffice it to say that "Starcatcher," wherein a dozen actors play more than 100 characters and ignite their own theatrical environment, requires copious amounts of imagination. Stylistically, the piece makes many nods to British pantomime and the Pythonesque. It embraces anachronism far more easily than any Captain ever loved a crocodile. A linguistic feast, it is gobs of fun with interludes of tragic dislocation.

Not unlike childhood, you might say.

If you saw "Peter" in New York or when the tour came through town, I would not say there is enough that is wildly distinctive about Osetek's very solid production to merit going again, although there are a few exceptionally witty bits of new staging, especially early in Act 2.

But if you and yours (the show is ideal for kids from about 10 years old and up) have not had the pleasure of the piece, Osetek and his all-Chicago cast (again) certainly do the rich storytelling proud. There is an especially funny performance from Matt Mueller as Black Stache (Mueller is one of the two male members of the increasingly famous Evanston theatrical family in the show; his brother Andrew plays Fighting Prawn). And as Molly Aster, the forceful, determined actress Emma Rosenthal has spunk, charm and just the right note of unease.

As a whole, the Lost Boys are rather glaringly lacking in diversity — unfortunate, given that "Starcatcher" is really about boys of all kinds and from all places — the essence of lost boydom, you might say. But the ensemble clearly is closely connected. Alas, Jeff Dumas, who plays Smee, is likely out for a couple of weeks with an injury, but his understudy, Ryan Stajmiger, wholly is up to the task.

I've seen "Starcatcher" three times now and it has grown on me on each occasion. Others loved it from the get-go with far more gusto than I — the insatiable fascination with this particular story has bemused me at times — but, especially now that Rees is gone, the piece feels wise, poignant, honest and, well, understanding of our hopeless desire to never grow old. The Lost Boys yuk it up with the best of 'em in this show, but they also talk about the darkness that surrounds those unlucky enough to be lost in one of the world's many caves, hoping to catch at least a partial glimpse of a star.