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Review: Slow Burn's 'Peter and the Starcatcher' will light you up

Correspondent

Does the state of the world have you feeling glum, chum? Slow Burn Theatre and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts have the ideal antidote to newsfeed-induced upset: “Peter and the Starcatcher,” an escapist theatrical tonic for serious times.

Based on Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s 2004 bestselling children’s novel “Peter and the Starcatchers” (yes, there’s an extra “S” in the book’s title), the inventive play was adapted for the stage by “Jersey Boys” book co-author Rick Elice.

This prequel to “Peter Pan” has flown from the La Jolla Playhouse in 2009 to off-Broadway in 2011, Broadway in 2012, back to off-Broadway in 2013 and to numerous regional theaters, including a collaborative production by Miami’s Arsht Center and the University of Miami in 2014. Nicholas Richberg, who played hammy-to-the-bone pirate Black Stache (aka the future Captain Hook) in that production, received the Carbonell Award as best actor in a play in 2015 for his exquisitely over-the-top performance in that version.

This time, Clay Cartland (who, coincidentally, won the best actor in a musical Carbonell in 2015) gets to don the pirate king’s big, black, handlebar mustache. What Cartland, an extremely adept comic actor verbally and physically, demonstrates in Slow Burn’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” is that while there may be many types of ham, the right actor makes each one delicious. Cartland’s hammy Black Stache? Irresistible.

Staged in the Broward Center’s Abdo New River Room by Slow Burn director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater, “Peter and the Starcatcher” is performed by a dozen actors (11 men and one woman) who delight in the play’s celebration of theatrical make-believe.

Although Michael McClain’s impressive set is another work of scenic art from the talented designer, some locations are suggested in the simplest ways. Actors holding a rope just so create a doorway or a ship’s cabin. A ladder becomes an island mountaintop. The water in a magical grotto is pooled gold fabric.

Following Elice’s story-theater approach to the material, the actors take turns narrating and slipping into the skins of various characters. Several future “Peter Pan” characters figure into the prequel, though it takes some time for their identities to solidify.

The boy who will become Peter Pan is at first a nameless orphan called Boy (Jordon Armstrong). His orphan buddies and future Lost Boys are the pushy Prentiss (Robert Fritz) and the ravenous Ted (Corey Vega). The three are sold to the ruthless Bill Slank, captain of the old ship Neverland, who tells the boys that they’re bound for the kingdom of Rundoon, where they’ll become helpers to the king — though Slank has a far deadlier fate in mind for them.

Also onboard the Neverland is the plucky, brainy Molly Aster (Krystal Millie Valdes), who will grow up to become the mother of Wendy Darling. Her father, Lord Aster (Matthew Korinko), is traveling aboard the much faster ship the Wasp on a secret mission for Queen Victoria. That’s where Black Stache, his henchman Smee (a gleeful Cameron Jordan) and their motley pirate crew enter the action, changing course to pursue the Neverland and what they think is a trunk full of treasure. Soon enough, Black Stache will discover that greed is not good — and in his case, it’s downright painful.

Fitzwater has cast his production with terrific singers, and though “Peter” is a play-with-music (a few songs and musical interludes) rather than a musical, the robust voices under the musical direction of Anthony Campisi adds another layer of excellence to the show, which will travel to the Aventura Arts and Cultural Center and Delray Beach’s Crest Theatre after its Broward Center run.

Rich Szczublewski’s sound design, Jose Santiago’s lighting design and Rick Peña’s grand array of costumes (wait till you see Valdes and the boys as mermaids) bring the production’s fantastical world to life.

The cast performs with exuberance, unflagging energy and plenty of volume. Those prone to falling asleep at the theater will have to nap elsewhere (hurrah!).

Armstrong, with his mop of hair and radiant boyishness, conveys Peter’s lonely longing and his gradual transformation into leader of the Lost Boys. As Molly, Valdes shines as a clever and fearless leader, despite the sexist prism through which she’s viewed. Korinko as Lord Aster and Johnbarry Green as Captain Scott are fine representatives of Her Majesty’s realm.

As Fighting Prawn, leader of Rundoon’s Mollusk tribe, Andrew Rodriguez-Triana is a comic menace who deftly handles rapid-fire dialogue meaningfully laced with Italian cooking terms. Noah Levine is a devoted caregiver as Molly’s nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake, as well as one surprising fish-turned-mermaid. Ben Sandomir plays Mrs. Bumbrake’s unlikely suitor Alf and, perhaps even more unlikely, manages to transcend repeated jokes about his character’s problem with flatulence.

Cartland’s Black Stache, narcissistic in a far more entertaining way than the current occupant of the White House, demonstrates how flat-out funny self-adoration can be. Once Stache enters the artistic fray, it’s tough to watch anyone except Cartland, but that’s fine. In this role, anyway, the actor would have fit in with the Monty Python gang back in the day or, by toning down his performance just the tiniest smidge, could have followed Kevin Kline’s Pirate King in “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Slow Burn’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” is pun-filled and pleasurable, a joyous balm for anyone ready to hit the pause button on worry. Catch it while you can.

Peter and the Starcatcher” runs through Nov. 26 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. It moves to the Aventura Arts and Cultural Center, 3385 NE 188th St., Nov. 30-Dec. 3, then to the Crest Theatre at Old School Square, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach, Dec. 7-8 and Dec. 10. See the venue’s websites for showtimes. Tickets cost $45 at the Broward Center, $45 and $49 at Aventura, $65 and $75 at the Crest. To order for Broward Center, call 954-422-2662 or go to Browardcenter.org; for Aventura, call 877-311-7469 or go to Aventuracenter.org; for the Crest, call 561-243-7922, ext. 1, or go to OldSchoolSquare.org.

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