Joey deBettencourt, Edward Tournier and Benjamin Schrader from the "Peter and the Starcatcher" tour company at the Hippodrome May 6-18. (Jenny Anderson / November 16, 2012)

The result is a distinctive mix that isn't easily explained to unsuspecting theatergoers.

"I tell people it's a beautiful story where you're going to see characters become the ones we know and love," says Joey deBettencourt, who plays Peter in the national tour production. "And it's also a contemporary vaudeville show with a little bit of everything — slapstick, music, dance and movement. That's what I like about it."

One of the big changes made to the plot involves the orphaned boy at the heart of it. He is identified as Peter in the first paragraph of the Barry/Pearson book and is a confident, avian fellow in no time.

"I reconceived the story," Elice says, "to make it about a boy on the verge of maturity. He is filthy, feral and frightened, the least likely character to be in charge of anything. He has been orphaned so long he doesn't remember ever having a name."

Sold off with some fellow orphans to the shady captain of a ship called Never Land, the boy finds a glimmer of hope after meeting Molly, daughter of a lord, aboard. She is everything he is not.

"Molly's a proto-feminist," Elice says, "a super-bright girl very much ready to grow up in the course of the play. She's the type who would have been too smart for her own good and would never have had any friends."

Molly knows something about starstuff and other mysterious things, which Peter begins to learn about, too, amid run-ins with pirates and even stranger (and funnier) threats.

"At the end, the girl has become a full-fledged starcatcher, and the boy has become Peter," Elice says. "I wrote the play with that hero's journey in mind."

This serious side to the work appeals to deBettencourt.

"I grew up with the Disney movie," he says. "What fascinated me as I got older and read the J.M. Barrie story was how it is a lot darker than the movie. The cool thing this play does is bring in a little more of that dark edge. It gives a deeper element to the characters. The Peter in the play feels real to me."

"Starcatcher" leaves off with Peter deciding to remain on the island, where he can be a boy forever and learn to fly (he enjoys one brief airborne moment in the show, though not in the way you'd expect). Molly chooses to return to England, where, we learn, she will eventually become the mother of a girl named Wendy.

Before the final curtain, a deliciously nasty pirate leader called Black Stache (on account of his Groucho Marx-worthy facial hair) loses an appendage, which lets us know he will become Captain Hook. But that loss is not the result of a duel with Peter, as traditional Peter Pan legend has it.

"I was writing this play while the media was just getting around to challenging the idea that there were WMDs in Iraq," Elice says. "It got me thinking that maybe the story of the hook was just something J.M. Barrie told us, that it's not actually true. So I decided I'm just going to make up an alternate version."

No spoiler alert here. Suffice it to say that Elice concocted one of the show's biggest surprises.

"Nobody sees it coming," he says. "It has become this great comic set piece for the actors who play the role of Stache. It's now known as the 'Hand Aria.' "

Throughout the play, humor and seriousness mix to telling effect. The most sobering moment comes near the end, when Peter says, "Grown-ups lie. They lie and then they leave." Even with all the amusing antics that go before, that line stings.

As for the funniest scene — or at least a tie with the severed-limb business — that involves a chorus line of former fish who, exposed to starstuff, are now mermaids.

"I tell people you must be in your seat when the second act starts, or you will miss the best thing in the show," Barry says. "I just love the mermaid song."

The production number Elice and composer Wayne Barker devised evokes British music hall and pantomime routines. That it involves drag and wacky costumes — "Literally made out of garbage, bits of flotsam and jetsam from the sea," Elice says — just adds to the jolt.

Even less-splashy elements in the production have a way of standing out, partly because, in our era of aggressively high-tech set designs, they're so simple and subtle. The actors use ordinary objects, or just the power of suggestion, to conjure up scenic imagery. A piece of rope, for example, gets a particularly versatile workout.

"Every kid knows what it's like to pretend," Elice says, "and every adult knows what that was like for them when they were kids. That old muscle is still alive in all of us."

One of the cast members using those muscles is Annapolis native Luke Smith, who plays Stache's trusty first mate, Smee.

"I completely bought into it the concept," Smith says. "It's wonderful doing this kind of theater. For us, 21/2 hours go by so quickly, you can't believe it. And it's a great opportunity for kids and adults [in the audience] to find their inner child."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Peter and the Starcatcher" opens at 8 p.m. Tuesday and runs through May 18 at the Hippodrome, 12. N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $25 to $85 (plus fees). Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.