BY SANDY STAGGS
While its mainstage venue on Walnut Street undergoes extensive renovations including brand new seating, Asheville Community Theatre is mounting its current hit play with the theatre department at UNC Asheville.
This co-production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a prequel to “Peter Pan,” answers all of those pressing questions about the flying boy who wouldn’t grow up. And it’s a magical, belly-aching adventure, and oh such so good time!
The most sought-after new show of the season – at least six productions are on this year’s bill in the Carolina Curtain Call coverage area – “Peter and the Starcatcher” swept all of the technical categories at the 2013 Tony’s, and was nominated for Best Play. The comedy is adapted by Rick Elice of “Jersey Boys” fame FROM the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. And it uniquely features a handful of hilarious British Music Hall musical numbers penned by Wayne Barker.
Beautifully staged in the round in the Carol Belk Theatre’s extraordinary space, this super-synergized, well-oiled cast of ACT regulars and college students break the fourth wall immediately and lets us know this Victorian tale is set on the high seas.
The first half gets much of the exposition out of the way and introduces us to the crews and passengers on two departing vessels ‑ the new Wasp and the clunker Neverland ‑ each transporting identical trunks. One is a decoy and the other is filled with magical starstuff belonging to Queen Victoria herself.
Entrusted by Her Majesty to safely dispose of the starstuff in the remote kingdom of Rundoon, Lord Leonard Aster (Monroe Harrison Moore) sails on the Wasp helmed by his pal Captain Robert Falcon Scott (Lea Gilbert), the real-life Antarctica explorer, while he stows his young daughter Molly (Chloe Zeitounian) on the Neverland, accompanied by her nanny Mrs. Bumbrake, played by the impeccable Bradshaw Call.
Mrs. Bumbrake is determined to teach Molly “the essentials of young womanhood,” though she spends much of the play being courted by the crusty sailor Alf (Anna Zurliene).
Molly takes a liking to three “lost boys” who have been imprisoned by the Neverland’s seedy Captain Bill Slank (Mike Yow who has mastered the art of the whip): Julian Gonzales’ always-hungry Ted; the wailing Justin Day as Prentiss; and an orphan simply known as Boy, played by the dashing Alex Daly, who reminded me of a young Warren Beatty.
Of course, Boy is our hero and eventually christened Peter Pan later in the story.
And when the greedy Capt. Slank tries to seize the “treasure” filled trunk on the Neverland, and pirate Black Stache (John Hall) assumes control of the Wasp, the action-adventure takes flight on a nearby island in the second act, which opens with the play’s most brilliantly engaging musical moment “Mermaid Outta Me,” as the starstuff seeps into the ocean and turns the whole cast into singing vaudevillian mermaids. Bravo!!!
“Peter and the Starcatcher” is random controlled-chaos, whimsical and but never over the top except when it’s supposed to be. How could it not with outlandish tactics like costume designer Carina Lopez’s use of Loofah sponges as bikini tops and a mop head for hair, or the script’s use of Mrs. Bumbrake’s bloomers as a sail, speaking the Dodo language, communicating in Norse code and the sight of Stache’s matie Smee (Pasquale “Pat” LaCorte) playing the ukulele?
And while the entire ensemble (which also includes Alexa Edelman and Missy Sullivan in multiple roles) is sublime, the trio of leads is just extraordinary.
Daly sells his part instantly as the youth who “just wants to be a boy for a while” with his enthusiasm and childlike agility, which he demonstrated several times with gymnastic moves and a tumble entrance in the exquisite Grotto scene on a billowy 20-foot fabric wave.
As Molly, Zeitounian wears her grace, courage and wit on her sleeve and has the most sophisticated Keira Knightly British accent in the cast.
And as Black Stache, Hall is deliciously devilish and channels a bit of Johnny Depp (a la “Pirates of the Caribbean”) into this cruel but hapless character.
This production is so simaginatively directed by Chanda Calentine (ACT’s “A Chorus Line” and “Kiss Me Kate” among her many credits), who makes the most of the Belk’s unorthodox space: perpetually in the round with six well-used entrances, and four landings perched above for spot lights and even music director Brad Curtioff, who in one scene plays keyboard and beats a conga (or bongo) drum simultaneously.
Curtioff also secures uncompromising vocals quality from this cast in the act one finale “Swim On.”
The genius behind the incredible scenic designs in “Sweeney Todd,” “Young Frankenstein” and “La Cage Aux Folles,” Jill Summers takes a quaint, less-is-more approach here in her utilitarian, compact platform stage with hidden compartments hiding many of the illustrious props by Reeni Lindblom Dowd.
Peter and the Starcatcher” continues through April 15 at the Carol Belk Theatre at UNC Asheville, One University Heights in Asheville. For tickets, call (828) 254-1320 or visit http://www.ashevilletheatre.org.