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  1. Stage

Review: Delivery is the best part of Freefall's 'Peter and the Starcatcher'

ST. PETERSBURG — The success last year of Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel created more than a century after Peter Pan, inspired Freefall Theatre to bring the play back over the holidays.

The stage play by Rick Elice, which started as a young adult novel by Ridley Pearson and humorist Dave Barry, won five Tonys in 2012. The theater is alternating performances of Starcatcher with Peter Pan, the 1904 play by J.M. Barrie, through January.

This show is not especially easy to watch, let alone a second time. The plot pits the 13-year-old, mature-for-her-age Molly and three orphans — one of them Peter, the future Peter Pan — against a crew of pirates who have kidnapped Molly's father, an English lord. The father, Lord Leonard Aster, was appointed by Queen Victoria to safeguard a steamer trunk full of treasure aboard the Wasp, bound for the island of Rundoon.

The pirates start out by masquerading as the ship's crew, led by the vainglorious Black Stache. The real treasure lies aboard the Neverland, a decoy ship to the Wasp. That's because of some treachery on the loading docks, where the Neverland's captain, Slank, switched the steamer trunk containing the treasure with an identical trunk filled with sand.

Delighted yet? We're only getting started.

There is another story unfolding below decks on the Neverland, where Peter and his mates eat worms, confirming Peter's suspicion that adults are not nice people. This cloying moral subtext adds layers as the play goes on. We learn, for example, that colonialism is bad and that women can be better leaders than men. Some of the best moments come when that furious pace slows down sometime in the second act and Peter, played with a little too much earnestness by Taylor Simmons, and Molly, solidly played by Marissa Toogood, have a real conversation that touches on their mutual attraction.

The most charitable interpretation of this play is that it's a parody of theatrical conventions themselves, of suspenseful adventure and of all things conventionally romantic. Another possibility is that Elice (and before him, Pearson and Barry) threw together a bunch of silly ideas and troweled over the half-baked result with the stucco of alleged purpose. Many children's book authors have tried and failed to do the same.

That said, the opening night audience of adults seemed to love the show. Indeed there is much to like about it, starting with an inventive set design by Charles Murdock Lucas and the music directed by Michael Raabe. Chris Crawford, last year's Black Stache, turns in another outstanding and hilarious performance. Crawford also directs this show.

Robert Teasdale as Slank also captures the humor in the show with panache. And Daniel Schwab again gives Lord Aster a charming understatement, while Schwab doubles as a violinist in other scenes.

The play's most engaging elements stem from those ruminations on childhood and loss of innocence, embodied in Peter Pan. This production delivers all of that, plus a lot more.

Too much more, actually.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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