NEW YORK — Generations of children since 1904 have wondered where Peter Pan came from, why he never grew up and why he could fly.
Those questions and more about J. M. Barrie's classic character were answered in a 2004 prequel, "Peter and the Starcatcher," written for children by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.
This popular book has been adapted by Rick Elice ("Jersey Boys") into a rollicking, whimsical and fun-filled play that opened Wednesday night at off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop.
"Peter and the Starcatcher," the first straight play commissioned by Disney Theatricals, is inventively co-directed by Roger Rees ("Nicholas Nickleby") and Alex Timbers ("The Pee-wee Herman Show," "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson")
It's a madcap musical production, filled with silly puns, hip jokes, hilariously alliterative dialogue and sophisticated zaniness. Twelve talented actors adroitly play 50 characters with facetious brio and wit.
Accompanied by live piano and percussion, the cleverly choreographed ensemble enacts a droll homage to the kind of adventure stories where brave children fight evil adults with derring-do and a bit of magic, and England is amazingly close to mysterious tropical islands.
The story begins in 1885 Portsmouth, where the smelly, downtrodden crew of a shabby ship (the Neverland), controlled by a sneering villain called Slank (Matt D'Amico), is transporting orphan boys to a cruel fate. Also setting sail is a spiffy new frigate on a secret mission (the Wasp), crewed by royal British sailors, that has unfortunately been overtaken by pirates. All three groups fight to obtain a mysterious treasure hidden inside one of two identical trunks.
Adam Chanler-Berat is sweetly wistful as a sullen orphan, at first called only Boy. Chanler-Berat gradually reveals Boy's inner spunk and bravado as wondrous adventures befall the travelers.
"Starcatcher" will definitely appeal to boys of all ages, being liberally sprinkled with jokes about bodily functions and poop-deck puns. But the boldest of the children, and true hero of the play, is plucky 13-year-old Molly Aster, played in a wonderful, heartfelt performance by Celia Keenan-Bolger.
Keenan-Bolger is an impish delight, as motherless Molly seems to be everywhere at once. She fearlessly takes charge of the orphan boys on the Neverland, while confidently aiding her father, Lord Leonard Aster (Karl Kenzler), who is captured on the Wasp.
Christian Borle is outstandingly over-the-top as foolish yet ruthless pirate captain Black Stache, reveling in his character's silliness. Arnie Burton's wry, rubber-faced portrayals of a sassy nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake, and a wise mermaid, run a close second in comedic hilarity.
The production team provides artful visual humor, from Donyale Werle's clever, atmospheric set design and his monster crocodile to Jeff Croiter's adroit lighting to Paloma Young's grungy outfits for sailors and orphans, and her lovely, bright mermaid costumes.
"Starcatcher" is not a children's show, and there's some wink-wink, nudge-nudge humor that is not appropriate for some children. Parents can decide for themselves.
The way a recent adult preview audience constantly erupted in laughter indicates that many of us never really do grow up. Or at least, we never outgrow our love of a joke-filled adventure story, where good triumphs over evil and a boy might even learn how to fly.