By Cate Marquis, staff writer

The Repertory Theater of St. Louis goes for childhood magic with “Peter and the Starcatcher,” on stage through December 27. The musical is based on Dave Barry and Ridley Scott’s young adult novel “Peter and the Starcatchers,” an imaginative prequel to “Peter Pan.” This is the second time this funny, sly award-winner has been staged in St. Louis, as the Broadway tour played at the Peabody Opera House in 2014.

After starting its season with two very strong productions, “All The Way” and “Angel Street (Gaslight),” this production is a bit of a disappointment. There are significant differences between the Broadway production at the Peabody and this one. The Broadway version worked on two levels, with humor for both adults and children, packed with sly grown-up jokes that go over little one’s heads and literary/historical references, while the kids got swashbuckling adventure with fart jokes and other likewise humor. Pirates are a big part of this story and most of the first act takes place during an ocean voyage. Technically it is a musical, but only has a few songs, all of which are funny and full of double entendres, making it pleasant for those who do not like musicals.

For some reason, the Rep decided to drop the adult appeal and just go for the kid story—a curious choice given the Rep’s mostly adult audience—with a bare bones production. In the Broadway version, the set for the first act was a jumble of wooden boxes, ropes, and planks, which create a dingy Victorian city alley. The first act sets up the premise: young people on the boundary between childhood and adulthood, delaying growing up for one last indulgence of childish dreams and imaginative play. The bits-and-pieces set provides props for the actors to re-purpose in inventive ways, suggesting both children’s play and theater improv.

Given the Rep’s perpetual strength in wonderful sets and costumes, this set looked like an easy task for them. So it was surprising to find the thrust stage nearly bare, with only a ladder, a few wooden boxes, and backdrop curtain decorated with a bit of rope. It looked more like the kind of set one would see in a community production. The play opens with an assemblage of characters on stage but this production largely dispenses with the set-up and its whole concept of postponing growing-up for one last bit of childhood. Instead, it plunges straight into the kid’s story.

The spare set gives the actors much less to work with, but the good news for this production is that the cast is very good. Making the most of the few props, the actors energetically work their little hearts out to get the most laughs possible.

Betsy Hogg is delightful as preteen Molly Aster, the kind of clever, resourceful, and brave girl one often finds in classic children’s literature. Molly is devoted to her widowed father, Lord Leonard Aster (Clinton Brandhagen), whom she hopes to help on his secret mission for Queen Victoria (“God save her!” —a running joke anytime her name is mentioned) to deliver a trunk filled with secret “star stuff” to a country in distant Asia. Lord Aster will sail aboard the swift H.M.S. Wasp but since he wants to protect his daughter, he sends Molly off with her nanny Mrs. Bumbrake (Andy Paterson, in a frumpy dress) aboard the slower merchant ship Neverland.

Aboard the Neverland, Molly meets three orphan boys: the always-hungry Ted (Andrew Carlyle), self-proclaimed leader Prentiss (Sean Mellott), and the nameless Boy (Spencer Davis Milford). Hogg and Milford are charming, engaging in the typical pre-adolescent back-and-forth that lies between attraction and repulsion.

The captain of the Wasp is Robert Falcon Scott (Jesse Munoz)—yep, the Antarctic explorer—while the Neverland is captained by the shadier Bill Slank (Arturo Soria), assisted by his crewman Alf (Nick Vannoy) who takes a liking to Mrs. Bumbrake. But everyone’s plans are upset by the appearance of the colorful, bombastic pirate Black Stache (Jeffrey C. Hawkins) and his first mate Smee (Jose Restrepo), who chew up a lot of scenery in hilarious fashion. Natalie Morgan Fisher takes a variety of comic supporting roles, with several cast members also taking additional roles.

Comic standouts in this production include Paterson as Mrs. Bumbrake, who makes the most of the grown-up humor of a drag role, and Hawkins as the egotistical, over-the-top, language-mangling pirate Black Stache. Restrepo as Smee delivers his share of comic gold, as does Soria, particularly in his crazy second role as island chief Fighting Prawn in the second act.

While the first act has lost some of the wind in its sails, the second act, which takes place on an island, fares much better, opening with the terrific tongue-in-cheek production number of dancing mermaids—men in goofy drag—providing the grown-ups’ comic highlight. In this second half, the actors really soar and the comedy reaches its crowd-tickling heights. It is still goofy, campy humor but there are a few grown-up references in the mix, ending the flawed production on a humor high-note.