‘Peter and the Star Catcher’ takes new approach to old tale in debut

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AURORA | This isn’t the standard story of Peter Pan, that familiar tale that’s been rehashed in countless films, cartoons and musicals.

In Rick Elice’s award-winning play “Peter and the Star Catcher,” the boy who refuses to grow up has yet to find his personal fountain of youth or learned to fly. His rag-tag band of Lost Boys are still just average kids, and his enemy Captain Hook is just an inarticulate pirate who still has both of his hands. The Darling children — Wendy, John and Michael — are proverbial gleams in their parents’ eyes, and the mystical world of Neverland is an undiscovered country.

The touring production of the Broadway show "Peter and the Star Catcher" will kick off this week at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The play explores the backstory behind Peter Pan, the Lost Boys and Captain Hook.
The touring production of the Broadway show “Peter and the Star Catcher” will kick off this week at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The play explores the backstory behind Peter Pan, the Lost Boys and Captain Hook.

But an important part of the “Peter Pan” story first told by Scottish author J.M. Barrie in the early 20th century remains unaltered in this play from 2008. There’s a grand sense of fantasy and adventure in this show. Pirates, mermaids and magic come to life through a bare-bones approach; a crew of 10 actors play about 100 different roles and the stagecraft relies a lot on the imagination of the audience.

That’s part of what intrigued producer Nancy Gibbs so much when she first saw the piece at the New York Theatre Workshop two years ago.

“It’s really wonderful to see a production that recaptures the reason that most of us got into theater,” said Gibbs, a Colorado College and University of Northern Colorado alum who’s lived in New York for 30 years. “It’s an epic story that you tell in a simpler way. You basically have two major backdrop sets,” she said, pointing to the stark settings of a ship and an island. “Your focus is on, ‘Who are these actors and who are they playing?’”

That innovative approach to an old story impressed Gibbs so much that she took a more involved role in the show. Gibbs is now producing the show that is kicking off its national tour in Denver this week. After a run in New York that garnered impressive reviews, Gibbs saw Denver as an ideal market to launch the show nationwide.

“I’ve watched the Denver Center for the Performing Arts thrive and grow,” Gibbs said of the decision to kick off the tour in Colorado. She’s also seen big touring productions like “Wicked” and “Next to Normal” make successful stops in her hometown. “This has become a major touring city, a city that will support all kinds of shows.”

Randy Weeks, current president and chief operating officer of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, has had a lot to do with that evolution. A former box office employee who started out running credit card orders, Weeks has helped turn the facility into a nationally recognized cultural institution, one that balances its own original programming with debuts of high-profile national shows like “The Book of Mormon.”

In “Peter and the Star Catcher,” Weeks saw a show that fit well with the Denver Center’s creative goals. The show, based on the 2006 novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, fuses familiar and original elements. With the majority of the original cast from that New York Theatre Workshop production returning for the Denver show, the production has kept that mystery that first drew in Gibbs.

“It’s very clever. It allows you to fill in a lot of blanks,” Weeks said. “You’re vaguely familiar with the source material, but not quite. You’re always trying to figure out exactly what is happening.”

More importantly, Weeks said, this backstory behind Peter Pan offers a rare achievement. With its unique approach to set design and performance, the show gets to the heart of what good theater should be.

“What I really was drawn to is it really is an example of successful storytelling without having to create a $20 million musical that has to get here in 18 trucks,” Weeks said. “It’s not all about the special effects.”

Instead, the show draws on a degree of fantasy that made Barrie’s original story such a cultural touchstone. Barrie described Neverland as a “place between sleeping and awake,” a place “where you can still remember dreaming.” That description could easily sum up the mood of “Peter and the Star Catcher,” a show that allows the crowd’s imagination to run free.

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]

“Peter and the Star Catcher”

Runs until Sept. 1 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St. in Denver.

Tickets start at $25.

Information: 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.