Fitting snugly into its stellar reputation for family-friendly shows, the Spotlight Theatre aims to shine with a starry cast in its new “Peter and the Starcatcher,” opening Friday night at 1800 7th Ave., Moline.
In the wild comedy with music, a young orphan (a precursor to Peter Pan) and his mates are shipped off from Victorian England to a distant island ruled by the evil King Zarboff. They know nothing of the mysterious trunk in the captain’s cabin, which contains a precious, otherworldly cargo.
At sea, the boys are discovered by a precocious young girl named Molly, a Starcatcher-in-training who realizes that the trunk’s precious cargo is “starstuff,” a celestial substance so powerful that it must never fall into the wrong hands. When the ship is taken over by pirates – led by the fearsome Black Stache, a villain determined to claim the trunk and its treasure for his own – the journey quickly becomes a thrilling adventure.
Rick Elice’s hit “Peter and the Starcatcher,” opened on Broadway in 2012 and the first local production was in June 2017, at the former QC Theatre Workshop in Davenport. Mike Schulz (who’s Black Stache at Spotlight) was in the same role five years ago.
With slapstick comedy, song, and dance, the family-friendly musical tells the untold story of the boy who became Peter Pan. The new show is directed by Whitney Fahner, who recently moved to the QC from Atlanta, Ga., where she has been teaching and directing for a decade.
Schulz had to audition like everyone else. “What was cool about having Whitney on board was that, I don’t think she saw any of us do anything,” he said this week.
“There are only a few shows where the lines stick in your head after a few years, and this is absolutely one of them,” he said. “It’s ridiculously well-written, and I find myself reciting lines on the treadmill or the car, because they’re fun words to say.”
Schulz said because the play is so well-written, actors have many clues on how to play their part.
“They’re all strange – Peter and Molly are both so wise, yet both so childlike,” he said. “That’s all in the dialogue.”
His big, boisterous pirate is like a “doofus – he knows big words, but he doesn’t know how to pronounce them correctly,” Schulz said.
From Skid Row to starry dreams
Peter is played by 22-year-old Jacob Johnson, who starred as Seymour in Spotlight’s “Little Shop of Horrors” last fall.
He’s a Black Hawk College grad and has an internship in graphic design at Quad City Arts. “I don’t have a degree in theater, but luckily I can be a part of the community, and do shows like this,” Johnson said.
“I get cast as younger people, but I also play naïve very well,” he said of his role as Peter, the boy who won’t grow up. “It just suits me as a person and my acting style.”
Johnson wasn’t familiar with “Starcatcher” before this, but loves it. “Like Mike was saying, it’s super well-written. There are so many funny scenes and characters, and it’s really exciting to actually be a part of it.”
The show is not a musical, but a comedy with songs, Schulz explained, noting it only has two major musical numbers.
“It’s playful,” said Amelia Fischer, who plays Molly (a 13-year-old who becomes Wendy’s mother years later).
“I’m a young girl, so Peter and I are similar in age,” she said. “Her dad is a bigwig and taught her a lot — he’s taught her languages and made her grow up in schooling. She’s friendless, as she says, until she finds a compatible friend.”
Fischer also got to be the childlike Lucy in the Spotlight’s first full post-pandemic show, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” in June 2021, and has been a member of the Stolen Set Improv group there. Noah Hill — who played Charlie Brown — is in the improv comedy group and also is in the new show.
“That’s been really nice,” Fischer said.
A Spotlight debut
Schulz (a longtime actor and theater writer) is making his Spotlight debut, since the Moline venue opened in 2018. In the former Scottish Rite Cathedral building, he hosted the Miss Teen Iowa pageant in 2012 and has seen Spotlight shows here.
“It’s a beautiful space, with crazy acoustics,” he said. “The appeal of it was both to do the show and freaking work with Amelia and Jacob — honest to goodness, these are people I’ve been fans of a really long time. And Adam Sanders, Chris Tracy, and Brycen Witt. It’s one after another. It’s ridiculous, it really is. When I saw the cast list, I immediately started texting people, saying, I can’t believe we finally get to work together.”
Schulz wanted to cast Fischer in his Black Box Theatre production of “Waiting for Godot” (in October 2020), but playwright Samuel Beckett’s estate refuses to allow women to be in the show.
The Spotlight “Starcatcher” is much different than the 2017 version, which featured a small space and about half the cast (10 instead of 20).
“What’s weird about doing it here instead of the Workshop — at the Workshop we had about 20 feet across, and here we have at least twice as much,” Schulz said.
The play reflects about 100 roles (including pirates, sailors and mollusks), usually done with 10 actors. This version has a half dozen women performers, and usually Molly is the only female actor, Schulz said. “There are always more female performers anyway.”
Costume designer Sara Wegener has done a good job in limiting full costume changes, doing more with small changes, Fischer said. “It’s easier for us, too,” she said, noting there are also mermaids in the story.
“Having the two-story set is fantastic. It’s like a jungle gym, which I love,” Schulz said. “That’s totally the kid appeal of this.”
Katie Griswold is music director, featuring Spotlight veteran Mason Moss on keyboards with the small band.
Not a musical, but lots of music
“It’s not a musical, but there are a lot of music cues,” Schulz said. “It feels more musical than it actually is.”
Fischer said the show is aimed for kids, but a lot of its dialogue and words can be appreciated by adults.
“It’s like a super sophisticated kids’ show,” Schulz said. “There are definitely jokes geared to grown-up folk. Theoretically, they will go over kids’ heads.” He compared it to “Shrek”-style of humor.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” will be performed at 7 p.m. April 1, 2, 8, and 9, and 2 p.m. on Sundays, April 3 and 10. Tickets are $20, available HERE.