"Peter and the Starcatcher" floated into San Francisco on Wednesday night and flew straight into our hearts.

Powered by handfuls of stardust and several trunks' worth of theatrical bravado, this five-time Tony winner is storytelling theater at its finest. In an age where Broadway musicals often are dominated by glitz, special effects and machinery, this endlessly endearing Peter Pan prequel celebrates the glories of winking showmanship and the magic of emotion.

JENNY ANDERSON/SHNJoey deBettencourt (as Peter Pan) and Megan Stern (as Molly) make for a engaging team in the touring production of "Peter and the
JENNY ANDERSON/SHN Joey deBettencourt (as Peter Pan) and Megan Stern (as Molly) make for a engaging team in the touring production of "Peter and the Starcatcher," playing in San Francisco through Dec. 1. ( shn )

Exuberantly directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, this ingenious fairy tale flies on its giddy sense of invention as a cast of 12 employs nothing more than a few ladders, a bit of rope, a stuffed cat and a kitchen timer to cast a magic spell on the audience. As shamelessly campy as it is sentimental, "Peter" puts the swash in the buckle and a bit of melancholy in your spirit. Chock full of colonial history, groaner puns and flatulence jokes, this is by far the wittiest version of J.M. Barrie's fairy tale in ages. "Peter" soars through Dec. 1 at San Francisco's Curran Theatre as part of the SHN Broadway series.

Inspired by the epic style of "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby," which starred Rees, "Peter" revels in its modest resources in order to spotlight the gifts of its ensemble, which roars through 50 parts and countless inanimate objects. These lost boys are always on the move (sly choreography by Steven Hoggett) searching for their destinies amid Donyale Werle's marvel of a set and Paloma Young's ragtag costumes. Instead of technical razzle dazzle, the special effects here are all in the imagination, the rough magic of the Victorian music hall.

There is no high seas or pirate ship or jungle, yet all of these tableaus come to life in the mind's eye because of the vividness of the performances. Rick Elice's script (adapted from the children's novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) races through the narrative with gobsmacking cheek.

The bones of the story are simple. A battered little boy, orphaned so young he can't remember his name, sheds his tragic past to become the mythical Peter Pan (Joey deBettencourt). Along the way, the boy who wouldn't grow up tussles with scurvy pirates, cross-dressing mermaids and giant crocodiles. He also picks up a handy skill or two, not the least of which is learning how to fly.

This fantastical adventure unfolds at a breakneck pace, but the directors make sure to carve out moments for some pure vaudeville-style hamming. John Sanders delivers a tour-de-farce as Black Stache, a pirate with scads of panache and an ear for malaprops. Sanders' virtuoso bit of vamping in the second act is a sublime act of silliness that had the opening night audience nearly spitting up with laughter.

Peter also must test his mettle against the unsinkable Molly (a radiant Megan Stern), who is "insatiably curious and insufferably bright." She's a heroine who stays on mission, even when her heart is melting. One of the most touching aspects of the fable, a rowdy pastiche of styles and tones, is how stealthily a sense of wistfulness sneaks up on you amid all the giggling.

"Peter" conjures up both the magic of childhood and the melancholy of knowing that one day all that wonder must be left behind.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza and follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4.

'PETER AND THE STARCATCHER'
By Rick Elice, adapted from the book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Through: Dec. 1
Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $40-$160, 888-746-1799, www.shnsf.com