Picture mermaids and shipwrecks, lonely orphan boys long deprived of sunlight and suddenly racing toward danger with pirates. Picture “Peter Pan”: That’s what the happily rambunctious “Peter and the Starcatcher,” now at the Kennedy Center after capturing five Tony Awards on Broadway, entices audiences to do.
It defies gravity in an altogether different way than “Wicked,” another famous prequel that, like “Peter,” imagines a back story for an evergreen cultural cornerstone. But believe this (and clap your hands): It can fly.
Where the megamusical “Wicked” is a high-tech dazzler, “Starcatcher” works on a simpler human scale. A dozen actors play multiple parts, make scenery out of ropes and buckets, and generally hurtle about like they’re having the best playground session ever.
The play is based on the popular kids’ novel “Peter and the Starcatchers,” and the script by Rick Elice has fun with that Dave Barry-Ridley Pearson book, with the J.M. Barrie original, and with — well, with whatever seems to work.
Need a song? The first act finishes with a rousing anthem. Want a joke? Puns and low gags fly fast and furiously, especially with the entrance of a jolly, dastardly pirate whose ingredients are a dash of the saucy Jack Sparrow and a heaping helping of another nasty swashbuckler — you know, good old Captain What’s-His-Name.
Here he’s called Black Stache because of the mean-looking mustache he sports, even though it’s greasepaint. The role’s a dilly — Christian Borle, one of the stars of NBC’s short-lived, Broadway-themed “Smash,” won a Tony in the part — and lanky John Sanders reaches antic heights with his jaunty movements and gleeful snarls.
The flamboyant Stache is an unabashed hot dog, so brazen he even shouts down a giant crocodile who threatens to upstage him. That giant-jawed, red-eyed croc is rendered in materials you could probably find in the average suburban garage, and it’s that kind of handmade ingenuity — performed with panache — that makes “Starcatcher” such imaginative fun.
The show’s framework was devised by co-directors Roger Rees, the former Royal Shakespeare Company actor still well-known for his triumph at the front of that troupe’s landmark “Nicholas Nickleby,” and Alex Timbers, who recently emerged with the musicals “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Here Lies Love.” (For his next act, Timbers is directing the much-anticipated musical version of “Rocky,” which starts on Broadway in less than two weeks.) With the shape-shifting cast taking turns at narration and playacting as kids, adults, and even scenery, thanks in part to movement devised by the in-demand Steven Hoggett (“Black Watch,” “Once”), the show is a delirious, highly disciplined game of let’s pretend.
At first, it tumbles along almost too swiftly. As the ensemble makes scenes amid the dim rigging and planking that primarily suggests the dingy insides of an old ship (Donyale Werle designed the scenery, which expands with air and color in the second act), the quips and pell-mell plot come at you in a whirlwind.
But there is method in it. As you get the hang of the show’s style, the comedy begins to bloom and even explode, and Wayne Barker’s occasional songs delight; the numbers that bracket the intermission are as different as they can be, and nothing short of perfect. Best of all, the show swings ’round toward Barrie, with sober passages involving the unnamed orphan boy who will become, well, you know, alongside an indomitable and noble young girl named Molly.
Molly and the boy are on an adventure about leadership, friendship and growing up, and their competition has a tough yet lovely spark. Joey deBettencourt is surly yet winning as the boy who can’t trust adults, and as Molly, Megan Stern uses her muscular voice and lively physicality to create a happy heroism that gives the boy something to match. The show is at its most affecting in the reflective scenes between these two.
Or is it at its best when rollicking with action and laughter? Theatrically, it’s an ingenious machine, an event of near-perpetual motion that nevertheless takes time to explore the troubled heart of Barrie’s great character. “Starcatcher” has been billed as “a grown-up’s prequel to ‘Peter Pan,’ ” yet it’s recommended for kids 10 and older. That feels right: “Pan” never grows up, because on its deepest level it’s always grown up. It continually fascinates, and in this dashing, frisky telling, it’s anything but old.
By Rick Elice, based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers. Costumes, Paloma Young; lights, Jeff Croitier; sound design, Darron L. West. With Harter Clingman, Jimonn Cole, Nathan Hosner, Carl Howell, Benjamin Schrader, Luke Smith, Ian Michael Stuart, Edward Tournier and Lee Zarrett. About two and a half hours. Through Feb. 16 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets $55-$135, subject to change. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.