"Peter and the Starcatcher" flies into San Francisco next week on the wings of five Tony Awards. A witty prequel to the "Peter Pan" fable, it's one of the most highly anticipated shows this fall season, and it fits in the sweet spot for family friendly holiday fare.
Though it's now widely hailed as a theatrical tour-de-force, Rick Elice confesses he wasn't a huge Peter Pan fan when he started. Co-writer of the Tony-winning "Jersey Boys" smash musical, he only agreed to write the adaptation of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's 2004 children's novel because his life partner, Broadway veteran Roger Rees, was co-directing it. He thought he would toss it off as a favor.
But almost as soon as he delved into the mysteries of J.M. Barrie's enchanted allegory, he was bewitched. A madcap cross between a music hall sketch and a beloved bedtime story, this swashbuckler spins around 16 actors who double up on parts to transport us to Neverland and back. Elice recently took a few minutes out of his busy schedule (he is also hard at work on the screenplay for the upcoming "Jersey Boys" movie) for an email chat about the power of fairy tales to keep us young at heart.
Q Why does this story strike such a deep chord with so many?
A There's a powerful theme to this play, namely that life is better when we're part of something bigger than ourselves. There are so many ways to feel marginalized these days, to be disenfranchised. But we all crave a seat at the table, whatever the table happens to be. So we all understand the yearning of the title characters -- this feral orphan who becomes Peter, and this hyper-bright, isolated young woman who becomes the Starcatcher. ... Finally, the play taps into a perspective that only comes with age. It's something about the idea of this eternal man-child that's really recognizable to us as adults. It's why psychologists coined the "Peter Pan Complex." On one level, we seem to be hard-wired as a species to not want to grow older.
Q Do you think a lot of grown-ups are starved for that childhood sense of wonder?
A If we are, it's because of the 24-hour news cycle, which is relentless. ... J.M. Barrie suggested that adults lose the capacity for wonder, and that's why they have no patience for Peter. I think imagination, like any other muscle, gets flabby unless it's exercised. Theater is a gym for our hearts and minds. The more we go, the more wonder-full our lives will be.
Q What's it like working with your life partner?
A Roger and I have always shared a great passion for the theater, and it's very rewarding to head off to the same place each day, to go on the same journey. I like to collaborate, in life and at work; meeting challenges together. As the writer, I can plot and express and advocate for character and action and theme. But the director is the boss.
Q What is your favorite moment in the show?
A My favorite moment in "Peter" is that point where the play and the production overlap simply and spectacularly. The boy jumps from a great height and is caught by the rest of the company. It's the only time in any production in which the character of Peter appears, that he is actually and truly a human body in flight. No hydraulics, no harnesses, no tricks. Only the boy's belief that he will be caught, and the company's belief that they will catch him safely. It demonstrates physically the theme of the play -- that only when we're part of something larger than ourselves can we achieve something special. It only lasts a moment, but it gets me every time.
Q Why is a strong female character key?
A I didn't want to write a puppy-dog partner trailing after the male hero. I wanted to write a wolfhound. I remembered that when I was kid reading "Tom Swift," "The Hardy Boys" and "Treasure Island," the girls were reading about Scout Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Jo in "Little Women" and Anne in "Anne of Green Gables." I wanted to write a female character that was not heroically redundant or merely in support. This is really a two-hander. It's Peter and the Girl. She's a proto-feminist, super-articulate, very bright female, pushing against the constraints of Victorian propriety, "the way a proper girl ought to behave." She's as bereft of companionship as the boy she meets, and they're bound together in this way. It's the hero's journey, but it's not just Joseph Campbell. It's Joseph and Josephine, and I think that's only fair.
Q How important is it to have the right cast?
A It's essential to have a great cast. Fortunately, Alex, Roger and I all believe that the way to hook a great group is to give them great things to do, to challenge them, to reward them with a worthwhile journey each night. That's why so many of the actors stay with the play for such a long time. Audiences get it, too. They sense the exuberance and joy the company feels, and they feel it, too. I like that everyone -- actors and audience -- leaves the theater every night happier than they feel when they arrive.
Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772.
"Peter and the starcatcher"
When: Tuesday through Dec. 1
Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco
Tickets: $40-$160, 888-746-1799, www.shnsf.com