An origin story riffing on Peter Pan, a beloved children's story. Plus pirates, Dave Barry's humor and a pile of Tony Awards. "Peter and the Starcatcher" is big-tent material seemingly tailor-made for the holidays.
All of which helps to explain why the play is the fall main-stage production at the University of Montana School of Theatre & Dance.
Director Joel Shura, a theater graduate student, said it's a well-rounded, all-ages show for the season. "What makes a good family show is you get things for every age group. Adults get stuff that the kids don't and this is no exception," Shura said.
The play, written by Rick Elice of "Jersey Boys" fame, is based on a young-adult book by humor columnist Barry and novelist Ridley Pearson, who combined their mutual skills in comedy and adventure writing to create a backstory for Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys and Neverland.
The story falls within the popular "origin story" format. In the opening, audience members are introduced to two new characters: Molly Aster, a strong-willed young woman, and her father, Lord Aster, who has been dispatched by the Queen to destroy a magical trunk, Shura said. The two take separate ships. Molly meets three young orphans, including one known as either "Boy" or "No-Name": he's been an orphan so long that he's forgotten his name, Shura said. The other two kids, we eventually learn, are to become Lost Boys. Meanwhile, Lord Aster has been sidetracked by a run-in with Black Stache, a pirate that later may become famous for a certain missing appendage.
"The two ships end up colliding with each other and the adventure takes place," Shura said. In the second act, they trade on-deck action for a "magical island soon to be known as Neverland," he said.
It's the creative use of story-theater that helped make the play a success.
Shura said its junkyard aesthetic, homemade ingenuity and originality, which hadn't been tried on a large stage in some time, was partly the reason "Peter" became a hit on Broadway. In 2012, it won five Tonys, including awards for its technical imagination: costume, scenic, sound and lighting design.
Shura is directing "Peter" as his third-year final creative project requirement for his master's in theater direction. Last year, he helmed the UM main-stage production of "Dracula," William McNulty's adaptation of the Bram Stoker tale. In the Masquer, he directed a no-budget "black-box" production of "All in the Timing." This last August, he oversaw the Montana Repertory Theatre's educational outreach tour of "Raised in the Saddle."
The native of Northern California was drawn to UM's faculty, theater facilities and the financial package. What's more, the program highlighted teaching, his main interest following graduation, more than other programs.
Shura said the story of "Peter," is fundamentally about the imagination, so the production follows suit.
The concept he conjured up was to imagine the play as one that parents are putting on at the end of summer camp, a "wildly creative show" using whatever objects they can find.
When he and his company started out in the rehearsal hall, they only had some rope, a few trunks and some umbrellas to start building their world.
They recycled roofing palettes from the construction work on the PAR/TV building's roof to build parts of the set. The costume designer transformed myriad junk material for mermaid costumes. You might see some beer cans and plastic forks, he said. The tail itself is constructed from about 300 plastic bags.
They're "really lovely elements all around and fun for the audience to spot them," he said.