Rarely does the national tour of a Broadway musical surpass its New York original. Such is the case with Finding Neverland that has alit on the Bushnell stage through Sunday, August 6th. The show, which tells the back story of how playwright J.M. Barrie conceived his classic tale, Peter Pan, is enchanting and captivating and well-worth the price of admission.
Audiences are most likely familiar with the many iterations of Peter Pan, from the 1950’s musical starring Mary Martin to the Disney classic and so many others. Before all of these versions there was simply the 1904 play, with no music, that charmed the world.
Finding Neverland tells the story of how the beloved play, Peter Pan, came into existence. Barrie, a highly successful London playwright at the turn of the twentieth century, is searching for inspiration for a new show to write. Pressured by his longtime producer; beautiful, but dispirited wife; and others the writer’s creative spark is ignited by a chance meeting in the park with four boys and their sickly, widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. The boys are rambunctious, full of energy and imagination. Barrie, whose life is anything but exciting, immediately takes to Ms. Davies and the children. Their frequent rendezvous leads the author to his breakthrough play even though it takes a toll on his marriage and the health of the woman he now admires and respects.
Playwright James Graham has crafted a well-structured, surprisingly emotionally laden story inspired by Barrie’s creation and the events and personalities that played a part in its genesis. He has skillfully constructed cheerfully buoyant scenarios while also exploring the darker side of the turn-of-the-century writer’s life.
The music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy satisfactorily work in advancing the plot and enriching character development. The score is uncommon in today’s world of musical theater since there are actually songs you leave the Bushnell Center humming! They include such spirited numbers such as “Believe” and “Play” and moving ballads as with “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” and “All That Matters.”
The entire cast is first-rate, led by Billy Harrigan Tighe as J.M. Barrie. The actor brings an element of fun and playfulness to the role of the man who won’t grow up. At the same time, he layers his performance with an earnestness and steadfastness, which rounds out his character. Christine Dwyer as the widow Sylvia LLewelyn Davies is cheeky and effervescent. She has a beautiful voice, which is highlighted in the song “All That Matters.” John Davidson, yes the John Davidson who was ever-present on 1970’s variety and talk shows and the host of one of the first reality shows—remember “That’s Incredible”—is superb in the dual role of producer Charles Frohman and Captain Hook. Even with his fifty plus years in show business, there is still a youthfulness and bounce in his step. He is also more worldly wise and this comes across winningly as he plunges into his portrayals of the gruff, yet kindhearted man of the theater as well as the slyly menacing Hook. Broadway veteran Karen Murphy is suitable haughty and protective as Mrs. Davies’ imposing grandmother, Mrs. D Maurier.
The four children are endearing and enchanting. They are a talented, cohesive group, especially the oldest lad, Colin Wheeler as Jack, who plays a mean ukulele in the song “We’re All Made of Stars.”
Director Diane Paulus, who helmed the original Broadway production, has tightened up the story, making the show more fluid and compelling then the New York version. She has created a believable chemistry and esprit de corps among the acting troupe, which translates well whether in the surreal numbers such as “Circus of the Mind” and “Hook” or the more carefree moments as in “The World is Upside Down.”
Scott Pask’s minimal Scenic Design is enhanced by Kenneth Posner’s Lighting Design, Jonathan Deans’ Sound Design and, especially, Jon Driscoll’s Projection. They beautifully augment the production without calling undue attention to their use.