The boy who never grew up, but learned how to fly, has fascinated children — and adults who still remember being young — since he first soared above a London stage in a hit play by J.M. Barrie in 1904.
More than a century later, audiences can have fun learning how that boy turned into Peter Pan, thanks to another hit play, this one landing in Baltimore on Tuesday to start a two-week engagement at the Hippodrome.
"Peter and the Starcatcher," which earned a slew of Tony Awards after its 2012 Broadway run, is an eventful show loaded with humor and heart, not to mention surprise. Oh yes, and music, too. It's at once a fanciful Peter Pan prequel and an affectionate homage to good old-fashioned theater. There is nothing quite like it.
The play's roots go back to a 2004 best-selling children's book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson called "Peter and the Starcatchers," the first in what became a series of five.
Barry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist, and Pearson, a prolific author of suspense novels, got the idea for their project by happenstance.
"At breakfast one day," Barry says, "Ridley's daughter, Paige, asked him, 'How did Peter Pan meet Captain Hook in the first place?' I don't know why I thought that would be fun for a book. But we ended up writing 550 pages."
The scenario the men concocted involved an orphan named Peter and a girl named Molly who encounter pirates and other threats as they attempt to keep a treasure of "starstuff" from falling into the wrong hands. Along the way, that starstuff gives Peter the power of flight.
The book quickly took off.
"It was optioned by Disney for Pixar," Barry says, "so I figured it would be a movie and there would have to be CGI [computer-generated imagery]. But then Disney Theatricals came along."
That branch of the Disney conglomerate spotted potential in adapting the book for the stage. In 2007, theater directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers recruited Rick Elice, who co-wrote the mega-hit "Jersey Boys," to do the writing.
"Roger and Alex wanted a play with adult sensibilities and adult actors," Elice says.
The directors also wanted to avoid flashy scenery and a big ensemble (this is no "Wicked"-size prequel). Only a dozen actors and multiple roles. No one hooked up to wires and harnesses to "fly" around the stage in conventional Peter Pan style. Just a lot of good old make-believe.
Elice welcomed the challenge, though not as a lifelong Peter Pan fan.
"I knew the peanut butter really well," he says. "As a little boy, I saw Mary Martin in the TV musical in black and white, and, like all good children, I saw the Disney animated feature in color. But I was no student of the character or the mythology."
Elice's play went through various drafts and workshops. Along the way, assorted characters, incidents and an 's' ("Starcatchers" to "Starcatcher") were dropped from the children's novel. What finally emerged on Broadway in 2012 was much more than an adaptation.
"Rick completely transformed it," Barry says. "He was up-front at the beginning about what he wanted to do, and that was fine with me. It's so different from what we wrote, but in a wonderful way. He made it way funnier and way more oriented to adults."
Elice felt a bit sheepish at first about the tampering.
"Dave Barry was a hero of mine," he says. "The first time he attended a rehearsal, I heard him ask, 'Who wrote the dialogue?' I was edging to the door when I heard him say, 'It's funny.' So my hand shot up."
In addition to the Barry/Pearson book, Elice went back to the 1904 Barrie play for inspiration.
"It was much more bittersweet than the familiar versions of 'Peter Pan,' not as sentimental," Elice says. "There were puns and alliterations, irreverent humor, songs and ditties and anachronisms. I thought it would be fun to apply that to what Dave and Ridley had written."