‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ blows into Miami’s Arsht Center with stardust and fart jokes

PIRACY AND PUBERTY: Nicholas Richberg as the pirate Black Stache menaces the marooned kids in ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ at the Arsht Center.
PIRACY AND PUBERTY: Nicholas Richberg as the pirate Black Stache menaces the marooned kids in ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ at the Arsht Center. Justin Namon

Peter and the Starcatcher, a Tony-winner based on a 2004 children’s book by thriller novelist Ridley Pearson and former Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry, seems the ideal play for today’s attention-deficit audience — even at its bladder-busting 21/2 hour running time.

So much is going on in this fizzy prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan prequel, Peter and Wendy, audience alertness is a must to soak up all the puns, plot and pratfalls. But if you’re not so inclined and miss a joke, or a plot point, Rick Ellice, who co-wrote the touring juggernaut Jersey Boys and wrote the Starcatcher script, keeps throwing things at the audience. Something will stick.

The distracted and attentive alike will find it hard to miss the two loud, in-your-face fart jokes that give this amiable endeavor some wind in the busy first act — though you might hate yourself for laughing at the too-easy juvenile humor.

The most inspired scene, designed to wring the most laughs, opens the overlong Act II and features the male leads as mermaids with kitchen utensil pasties who sing a vaudeville tune about star dust, or, in this case, star “stuff.” Certainly rousing. Though, curiously, the sold-out Saturday night audience in the Ziff Ballet Opera House’s Carnival Studio Theater seemed to sit on its hands for much of the production.

Twelve talented actors, most of them University of Miami theater students who work with seasoned Equity pros Nicholas Richberg and Tom Wahl, perform not only their main roles but dozens of others, including roles as scenery and props. Rolling waves in this seafaring tale? Give cast members a rope and have them simulate a roiling sea upon which the action unfurls: secret missions for Queen Victoria, the pursuit of a magical sand called “star stuff,” piracy, puberty and the growing self-awareness of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up.

It’s theater-on-the-cheap writ large, and it looks fantastic.

Yoshinori Tanokura’s set, a lavish jungle gym contraption meant to resemble a rickety sea vessel, the Neverland, in Act I seems to morph as the swashbuckling action dictates. By Act II, the inventive cast, whether acting as a prop (a sea bed awaiting a boy overboard, for instance) or as a trio of rambunctious orphan boys led by a plucky heroine, has to make you believe the action is taking place in an underground grotto, on a beach and in a jungle.

Happily, the UM students, in the fourth coproduction between the school’s Department of Theater Arts and the Arsht’s Theater Up Close series, erase the lines between the pros and themselves.

Everyone is on equal footing — Richberg, as the flamboyant Freddie Mercury-like Black Stache/future Captain Hook, and Wahl, as Lord Aster, father of the young heroine Molly, along with Timothy Boehm-Manion, Joshua Jacobson and Timothy Bell as the orphans.

Sophomore Thomas Jansen, in the pantomime mame role as Mrs. Bumbrake, a British theatrical archetype in which a male in drag plays a blowsy female character, makes the most of his amusingly alliteration-heavy dialog. Jansen deftly spews bon mots like, “Betty’s blowing her bloomin’ breakfast,” as the storm-tossed sea — or thunderously flatulent love interest seaman Alf (Michael Mancini) — gets Bumbrake’s bloomers in a bunch.

Molly, played by Abigail Berkowitz, a UM musical theater major senior, is particularly well-pitched as the 13-year-old girl who blends precocious proto-feminist ideals with her strange new feelings (“Something about this boy makes Molly feel she grew up a little”).

Elice’s script, set in 1885, takes jabs at pop culture that manage to take in Sally Field’s much maligned Oscar acceptance speech, Kelis’ hip hop hit, Milkshake, and a “Cadillac Escalade of dilemmas.” Black Stache’s malapropisms —“As elusive as the melody at a Philip Glass opera” — amuse, but director Henry Fonte allows scenes to play on far too long. Black Stache’s mishap in the second act overplays its joke by at least five beats. The talky finale drags like a rudder caught in flotsam.

Likable when it should be lovable, the silly Starcatcher’s family-friendly take on never-ending childhood would benefit from a good trim and focus. As the late Joan Rivers might say, “Oh, grow up!”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

If you go

What: ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ by Rick Elice, based on the book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.

Where: University of Miami-Arsht Center production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 26 (additional 3 p.m. show Oct. 11).

Cost: $45.

Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.