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Peter and the Starcatcher: Winking Meta-Play Invents a Swashbuckling Origin Story for Peter Pan

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In the Arsht Center's production of Peter and the Starcatcher, University of Miami senior Joshua Jacobson doesn't just fill the title role, an orphaned boy who becomes Peter Pan. He also plays a pirate, a sailor, a British seaman, and a door -- yes, the kind that other characters open and close.

He's not alone. This is a play that requires some furious multitasking. Twelve actors play nearly 100 parts, including elements of the scenery and inanimate objects.

Ambitious and wide-ranging, Peter and the Starcatcher represents the fourth-annual collaboration between the Arsht Center and UM, in which students work with Equity actors in a professional production. And this one has a powerful provenance that stretches from a Barrie to a Barry. This tale of piracy, puberty, friendship, and supernaturalism on the high seas bills itself as a "grown-up prequel" to J.M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy. It's adapted from a best-selling 2006 fantasy novel co-written by Miami's own Dave Barry. It opened on Broadway in 2012 and accrued five Tony Awards out of nine nominations.

See also: Mothers and Sons at GableStage: Theater as Gestalt Therapy

The show's Broadway run closed just nine months ago, and its national tour will continue in January. The Arsht Center is the first venue in the country to present a regional production of one of the stage's hottest properties (the show opens this Friday, October 10, but the first two weeks are reportedly sold out).

It takes a vivid imagination to realize scenes such as the Act II opener, in which a group of mermaids sings vaudeville-style about swimming through stardust and changing from regular fish. And director Henry Fonte is determined to put his stamp on the play, establishing a fresh template for upcoming regional-theater productions.

"I have treated it as if it was a brand-new play," Fonte says. "Some people will copy the original production, and some people won't, and I wanted us to be the first to not copy it. Basically, what that entails is literally not reading the stage directions and just going from the play. It doesn't matter if the stage directions tell me it's a pretty green set and the character enters from the left, because the audience won't hear that. How does that happen organically? Does he have to enter from the left?'"

At least one of this production's radical changes is the lavish set design, which includes a central element (Fonte did not spoil the surprise) that never appears in the Broadway production. Certainly, scenic designer Yoshinori Tanokura had his work cut out for him. The first act is set aboard the Neverland, a rickety sea vessel. The second act takes place in a jungle, on a beach, and in an underground grotto. Expect the results to impress, even if, per the play's cheeky, self-reflexive style, some of these details may be filled in by the audience's imagination.

"Anybody who's been in the Arsht's Carnival Studio Theater before will be shocked when they walk in and they see the set," actor Nicholas Richberg says. "By far, it's the largest and most elaborate set that's ever been seen in the Studio Theater. The set is like a big jungle-gym playground, but it's by no means a literal set of the location the play takes place in."

"Playground" is a key word here. Peter and the Starcatcher is a play for adults -- scenes involving torture and other violence are implied, if not shown outright -- but it's also a playful, acrobatic adventure narrative that doesn't take itself too seriously. Richberg plays the story's flamboyant villain, Black Stache, for instance. He will become Captain Hook, a caricature of a pirate, prone to silly malapropisms (in desperation, he asks Peter to "merge a forger" with him) and threats he won't keep.

"Everything he does is a bit of a put-on," Richberg says. "He's a bit of a showman, so this role gives every actor a big green light to eat all the scenery."

"The tone is a romp; it's a British pantomime in a way," Fonte adds. "It's completely different from the book. The book is a real kids' adventure story in the best way possible. It has real villains, and the storytelling is clear as a bell. [But] this is a real piece of story theater. When you see 'adapted for the stage,' a lot of times that means picking and choosing lines from the previous work; in this case, it's a rethinking of it, and I think it's a brilliant rethinking of it."

It is a particularly special opportunity for Jacobson, the production's proto-Peter Pan. He grew up in Los Angeles, and one of his earliest memories of the stage was seeing gymnast/actress Cathy Rigby, Broadway's perennial Peter, in a touring revival of the 1954 Peter Pan musical.

"I will never forget how enthralled I was by that and how inspiring it was," says Jacobson, a senior majoring in musical theater. "To this day, I trace that moment back to how much I love theater and why I decided to do this."

Richberg, likewise, was raised on -Peter Pan, even if his interest gravitated toward Captain Hook -- a part he's having the time of his life channeling. "It's probably the most fun I've had onstage in a very long time, doing this role," he says. "Hopefully, the amount of fun we're having translates and is visible to the audience, because I'm having a blast doing it."

Peter and the Starcatcher runs from October 10 through 26 at the Adrienne Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $45.

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