180705a-l Peter and the Starcatcher Mollusks

From left, Ari Kassabian, Erik Schlicht, Austin Venditelli, Ariana Pacheco, Ashley Macamaux, Charlie Santos, Ezra Jordan and Kelly Robertson are part of the ensemble for CTC’s “Peter and the Starcatcher.”

The Contemporary Theater Company has launched its 2018 summer season with a high-flying production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a soaring musical comedy adventure that flutters with energy, heart and theatrical fun.

Adapted by playwright Rick Elice from the novel by Ridley Pearson and humorist Dave Barry, “Peter and the Starcatcher” first premiered in 2011. The acclaimed Broadway production went on to win five Tony Awards out of nine nominations. Structured as a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan story and an irreverent homage to all of its subsequent iterations, the play builds a rich and intricate backstory for well-known icons like Peter, Tinker Bell and Captain Hook, while adding a number of other surprises and delights along the way.

CTC’s production starts with a bare set and an explicit invitation to the audience to work together to set the scene and create the world on stage. “Use your thoughts to hoist the sails and deck the ships,” directs one character, while others begin to assume the roles of captains and sailors, mothers and orphans, pirates and tropical kings. The ensuing action carries the audience at a breakneck pace across the world on a seafaring voyage that ends up involving dozens of settings and what seems like hundreds of characters, depicted by an ensemble cast of 11 performers. Though not a musical, this is a musical play, featuring frequent underscoring and punctuated by a number of songs, most of which have a folksy or vaudevillian vibe.

It is up to director Maggie Cady to conduct this fast-paced and often cheeky cacophony, chock full of gags, flourishes and metatheatrical tricks. The bustle of action on stage belies how intricately the movement and energy have been choreographed. Under Cady’s direction, this band of performers is in constant motion, working together fluidly and fleetly to tell the story. In this production, the cast is called upon not only to enact multiple characters, but to serve as props and set pieces, offer sound effects, and zoom in and out of the action through pantomime, puppetry and other physical devices. Amidst all of the physical comedy and word play, Cady leaves ample space to draw out and sensitively explore the play’s underlying sentiment about being a child in a grown-up’s world.

“Peter and the Starcatchers” revolves around the relationship between a girl, the brave and talented Molly, and a lonely orphan boy with no name who becomes Peter Pan. CTC’s production gets a lot of mileage out of the chemistry and juxtaposition between these two leads. In the role of the Boy, Kelly Robertson delivers much of the show’s poignancy and edge. Robertson expresses her character’s uncertainty and vulnerability with a clarity that’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The darkness and weight of Peter’s damaged past is visible in Robertson’s physical characterization, as well as the awkwardness of being suspended between adulthood and his stolen childhood. Robertson captures the striking tragedy of Pan’s simple plea: “I just want to be a boy for a while.”

Ari Kassabian gives a confident and relentlessly charming performance as Molly, providing much of the production’s energy and drive. The play frequently complicates traditional gender roles, as the swashbuckling Molly brims with courage and derring-do, saving the day on more than one occasion. The two enjoy one of the play’s most tender moments at their mountaintop lookout, after an impulsive kiss leads Molly to ruminate on how “we girls can’t afford to be sentimental. We must instead be strong.” The play is acutely attuned to the irony that Molly will not be remembered in J.M. Barrie’s tale.

Charlie Santos provides a delightfully strong antagonist in the character of Black Stache, the “ruthless but toothless” ur-hook in search of a hero to oppose him. With an impeccable sense of a comic moment, Santos feeds off of the audience in a role that is tailor-made for over-the-top scenery chewing. Speaking of scene stealing, Ashley Macamaux offers a number of hysterical moments as the sidekick Smee, including an outrageous ukulele solo and a few flops around the stage as a mermaid. The two enjoy as much chemistry and comfort together as Robertson and Kassabian. Austin Venditelli and Owen Gilmartin make the most of their parts, the Lost Boys Prentiss and Ted. Gilmartin, in particular, finds a funny comic arc in his role – with the help of an inscrutable pineapple.

Supporting design elements conspire to make an ambitious undertaking look all too easy. Roomy multi-level set design by Christopher Simpson is up to the task of supporting the expansive narrative. The dreamy set painting by Rebecca Magnotta provides an ideal backdrop for the colorful costumes and puppets by Marissa Dufault. All of this is beautifully lit by Maggie Cady’s rich lighting design, which never fails to miss a detail. On the piano, music director Jean Maxon Carpenter deftly executes the jaunty score, which includes a variety of musical styles.

The brisk and fluid show, clocking in at just more than two hours with intermission, is in constant motion. A glance around the sold-out Saturday preview saw most audience members smiling throughout the show. And yet, for all of the shipwrecks, sword fights and daring rescues, the show’s underlying wisdom and honesty takes flight so sweetly and humbly at the end, the sentiment feels quite unexpected.

At its heart, this is a story that takes seriously a child’s desire to fly, and holds sincere sorrow for the “child who lives in a fact-based world.” CTC’s production of “Peter and the Starcatcher” succeeds in bringing an urgent and improbable story to life in collaboration with the audience, drawing its energy from the curiosity and openness of a child’s imagination, and making it look like child’s play along the way.

For more information on showtimes, see Happenings, Page C3.

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