Review: Finding Neverland

The directions to Neverland, according to Peter Pan, are quite simple: “Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.” Making a musical about the development of Peter Pan and what inspired its writer J.M. Barrie to pen the classic is a bit more complex. “Finding Neverland” arrived earlier this week at The Hobby Center as part of its first national tour and while it made it to the second star just fine, it doesn’t quite get all the way to morning.

Based on the film with Johnny Depp, “Finding Neverland” tells the story of J.M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe), the Scottish writer who would ultimately create iconic characters like Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Desperately trying to write a hit play, Barrie meets widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Wicked’s Christine Dwyer) and her children George, Peter, Jack and Michael. Pay close attention to those names and you’ll see the roots of some Pan characters already. Barrie encourages the kids to use their imaginations, but one in particular, has grown up too fast and refuses to take part. Can you guess which one? As he continues to interact with the Davies family and learn more about them, Barrie is inspired to throw out the play on which he is working and start over on what will ultimately be “Peter Pan.”

Barrie’s producer Charles Frohman (understudy Matthew Quinn at my performance) is thrilled to find Barrie excited to write again but very skeptical of the subject matter. Surely this is a kids story and not something that will sell seats. Will the masses want to see this crazy story with ticking crocodiles and lost boys? The actor playing Frohman also does double-duty as Captain Hook, who in this particular incarnation is a representative of the voices inside Barrie’s head. Beyond hook, the crocodile, a ticking clock and Peter Pan, there are dozens of clever sight gags that are little references to elements of the story he will eventually write. There are shades of both “Mary Poppins” and “Wicked” in how seemingly unconnected elements come together to form the story we know today. The show has a good sense of humor but does take a dark turn in Act Two which might be a bit unsettling to smaller children.

The songs, for the most part, are very good, although at times they seemed to end rather abruptly with no obvious build-up as you might expect. Particular highlights were the stunning and brilliantly staged Act One finale “Stronger,” “We Own the Night” and the title song. The staging is also very well done, with a stunning sequence towards the end of Act Two where an actual wind vortex is created on the stage. That impressive effect punctuates one of the show’s most emotional moments. The final tableau as the curtain drops at the end is also memorable.

The actors overall were very good, with Tighe a delight as Barrie and the four children all very good. My only complaint with the kids is that they were sometimes difficult to understand, especially when yelling. This is a show that is apparently always evolving, as the song order for the tour is quite different than what appeared on Broadway. My overall impression of the show was similar to this shuffling: “Finding Neverland” feels like a very good first draft that would become great if given a few more re-writes. It is certainly entertaining and worthy of a trip downtown, but this is one of those shows that has the potential to be something very special but doesn’t quite get there.

One last note – if I’m ever going to produce a Broadway show myself, I’m simply going to parade animals across the stage for 90 minutes, insert a 20 minute intermission, then do another 90 minutes of cute, furry critters. At Wednesday’s performance, the crowd was very enthusiastic throughout the show, but the biggest oohs and aahs of the entire night came any time the real-life dog playing Porthos came on stage. I get it – it’s a cute doggie. The first time, I can understand the reaction. But to enthuse loudly every single time that pooch came out was a bit much. I honestly wondered by the end of the evening if any of these folks had seen a dog before.

***1/2 out of *****
“Finding Neverland”
Book by James Graham
Music & Lyrics by Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy
Based on the Miramax motion picture written by David Magee
and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee
Directed by Diane Paulus
Broadway Across America – The Hobby Center
Now through April 30th
Tickets: www.broadwayinhouston.com
Photo: The cast of “Finding Neverland” at Broadway Across America at The Hobby Center

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