In 2002, Ridley Pearson, a bestselling thriller writer, was reading J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan to his 5-year-old daughter, Paige.
A few pages into the book, she stopped him and asked, “How did Peter Pan meet Captain Hook in the first place?”
Ridley didn’t know the answer. But he thought it was an intriguing question.
About a week later, Ridley came to Miami for an appearance at Miami Book Fair International, and he stayed at my house. He and I are close friends, having met in 1992 when we became founding members of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a truly mediocre all-author rock band.
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Over breakfast, Ridley told me about Paige’s question and said he thought it might make a fun children’s book — Peter Pan’s backstory. I said it sounded like a good idea. Ridley said, “Do you want to write it with me?” Not knowing anything about writing for children, I said sure.
We were both picturing a little book. We ended up writing more than 500 pages. That book was Peter and the Starcatchers, which became a bestseller. We had so much fun writing it that we decided to make it into a trilogy, which ended up consisting of five books (writers are bad at math).
Since the books were published by Disney, Ridley and I had hopes that Peter and the Starcatchers would become a movie. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen. But what did happen was much better. It became a play — its name slightly altered to Peter and the Starcatcher. It was written by Rick Elice, who co-wrote Jersey Boys. The play was workshopped in California, then moved to New York for an off-Broadway run. It opened on Broadway in 2012 and got a rave review from The New York Times. It was nominated for nine Tony awards and won five.
It’s a wonderful play. I’m not bragging here: I had almost nothing to do with it. Yes, the play tells basically the same story that Ridley and I told, and with basically the same characters. But Elice radically re-imagined our straightforward action tale, turning it into a fantastic, funny, poignant and magical adventure in which 12 hyperactive actors play dozens and dozens of characters, as well as portraying scenery and props.
This is a play that calls for audience alertness: There is always something happening. The cast swarms around the set, exchanging rapid-fire lines crackling with wordplay, running gags and one-liners (I discover new ones every time I see the play). The tone changes constantly, swerving suddenly from slapstick (yes, there are fart jokes) to somber, then back again.
It’s not a normal play. You really have to see it. And you can! It’s coming to the Arsht Center in Miami, where it will open the 2014-15 Theater Up Close season. The production is a collaboration between the Arsht Center and the University of Miami.
It’s directed by Henry Fonte, producing artistic director of UM’s Ring Theatre; the executive producer is the Arsht’s Scott Shiller. The cast features local professionals Nick Richberg and Tom Wahl, both of whom have won Carbonell awards (South Florida’s equivalent of the Tonys).
They’re teaming up with 10 talented (and paid) UM theater students.
I watched them rehearse; they’re really good. So is the set, a big, whimsical creation designed by Yoshinori Tanokura. This is a professional production, and it feels like it.
It took a while to get here, and it was quite an improbable voyage — from a little girl’s simple question more than a decade ago, to Ridley’s and my book, to the fertile mind of Rick Elice, and thence to Broadway. Now, at last, it’s coming to my town. And I couldn’t be more thrilled.
If you go
What: ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’
When: Friday through Oct. 26.
Where: The Carnival Studio Theater of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami.
Tickets are $45 through the Arsht Center box office, 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.