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‘Starcatcher’ turns clock back to an adventure before Peter Pan could fly, before Capt. Hook

Submitted by on Mar 31, 2014 – 10:16 pm

Black Stache (John Sanders, center) knows that where there's a key, there must be a treasure chest. (Broadway in Chicago)Preview: Actor John Sanders, the inept pirate Black Stache in touring production of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” calls show a subversive farce and physical romp. At Bank of America Theatre April 2-13.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

John Sanders, who portrays the psychopathic Black Stache in the Peter Pan back-story “Peter and the Starcatcher,” can’t stop talking about the physical demands of the touring show, which comes to the Bank of America Theatre on April 2 under the aegis of Broadway in Chicago. 

Just how much of a workout does this dramatic flight of fantasy give the cast? “It’s the Pilates of theater,” declares Sanders, explaining that many of the show’s effects are created by actors throwing their own bodies into the action.

John Sanders plays the would-be pirate king Black Stache in 'Peter and the Starcatcher.' (Broadway in Chicago)“It’s more demanding than any musical,” says Sanders, whose credits include the Broadway production of “Matilda the Musical” and the national touring company of “Mamma Mia!”

“This show trumps them all, and none of that effort is hidden,” he says. “It’s taxing on us but rewarding to watch. That’s part of what makes ‘Peter and the Starcatcher’ so much fun. It’s so terrifically energetic.”

The story involves a secret expedition by an agent of Queen Victoria to collect a mystical substance known as starstuff. The agent, Lord Aster, a certified starcatcher, is accompanied by his adolescent daughter Molly, an apprentice starcatcher. Soon caught up in an adventure with pirates, Molly meets a Boy her own age, an orphan who has never had a name – though he’s about to get one: Peter.

Most feared of the pirates is the notorious Black Stache. Exactly why he’s so dreaded is a mystery since Black Stache (a reference to the character’s comical black mustache, pasted on a la Groucho Marx) isn’t very good at either pirating or sailoring.

Black Stache (John Sanders, upper left) and company morph into mermaids in 'Peter and the Starcatcher.' (Broadway in Chicago)“It begins as subversive farce,” says Sanders, a California native whose theatrical career took root during a dozen seasons in Chicago and work at Steppenwolf, the Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare and Writers.  “The play’s first few scene have this kind of dark, smoky, romantic quality. The audience isn’t quite sure where we are or what we’re doing. But then most plays are complex, mysterious, hard to follow in the beginning. I mean, you don’t know exactly who Gertrude is when ‘Hamlet’ starts.

“This one reveals that it’s silly, a sort of vaudevillian comedy filled with anachronistic language. It sometimes takes a little while for the audience to catch on. But we treat the story of Peter Pan with respect – this wonderful story of childhood and being a boy who would never grow up. We’re going to be silly, but at the end there’s this wonderful release that creeps up on you.”

“Peter and the Starcatcher,” which played on and off Broadway between 2011 and January 2014, was adapted for the stage by Rick Elice from a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. For the Broadway run, Sanders understudied the role of Black Stache. This first national tour of the show began last September.

Luke Smith, left, as Smee with John Sanders as Black Stache in 'Peter and the Starcatcher.' (Broadway in Chicago)What allows the bumbling, delusional Black Stache to succeed in his piracy, says Sanders, is the cleverness and indulgence of his first mate, Smee, played by Luke Smith.

“It’s really a great dual performance where we lean on each other,” says Sanders of the sharp-witted Smee and the actor in that skin. “Luke’s a hilarious guy and a skilled performer. He makes every show a wonderful experience. Stache doesn’t know how to sail and Smee is always there to get him through.”

But neither Black Stache nor Smee are the stuff – starstuff or any other kind – of heroes. Molly and Peter emerge as the shining characters.

“When Black Stache first comes upon the Boy, he sees something in him that he immediately connects with – a cheekiness, a spirit,” says Sanders.

“There’s a really special moment in the show when Stache is completing his metamorphosis into Captain Hook (by now sans one hand). He says to Peter: ‘Forget gold. Time will be our treasure.’”

Such is the starry stuff of the story behind Peter Pan.

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