This must be the season for playwrights having writer’s block. Two months ago it was Shakespeare in Love at the Cincinnati Playhouse with an impatient producer breathing down the Bard’s neck about a promised script. Now it’s the tour of the Broadway show Finding Neverland in which another impatient London producer is barking at his house playwright, J.M. Barrie, for an overdue play. Shakespeare’s inspiration comes his way thanks to a rapturous love affair; Barrie’s is more an affair of imagination, inspired by a quartet of rambunctious brothers whose love of pirates and tales of adventure provides him with the stories that he can cobble together into Peter Pan. (Barrie does fall in love with the boys’ young widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, but it’s really their horseplay and senses of humor that get his creative juices flowing.)
Unlike Shakespeare in Love, which is totally fabricated, Finding Neverland is rooted in real events in Barrie’s life in 1903. Both shows have a lot of fun with backstage humor and, in doing so, take a lot of liberties with reality — but that keeps the narrative entertaining. In fact, Finding Neverland jumps right into the fertile mind of Barrie and the boys, with the added impetus of a devil’s-advocate Captain Hook (played by singer and game show host John Davidson), conjured from the writer’s id, dug out of his own boyhood fears about being man enough to get by. This culminates in an especially bombastic Act I closer with a full-fledged sailing ship recreated onstage with booming surf, cannons and sailors swinging from the rigging.
Billy Harrigan Tighe (a 2007 graduate of UC’s CCM) delivers on the role of Barrie, both as a compassionate father figure and an encouraging mentor for introverted Peter (played with convincing emotion by Conor Jameson Casey on opening night) who longs for his deceased father and worries that his mother’s health is declining. Young Peter is the catalyst who inspires Barrie to release his own boy who “won’t grow up” and break his creative logjam.
The show flips back and forth between antic storytelling and softer emotions. Audiences love being reminded of bits and pieces of Peter Pan’s familiar story including a dog (that is a real dog, as well as an unwilling actor in the troupe who ends up in a dog costume) and a crocodile (the boy’s grandmother, played by Karen Murphy, something of a dragon lady). There are dazzling scenic effects including the aforementioned ship, many enhanced by video backdrops. From London’s Kensington Gardens to backstage at the theater (“The World Is Upside Down” expresses the actors fear of performing a play for children), we’re immersed in detailed, believable and sometimes amusing Victorian settings. In a penultimate scene, the room darkens and the air is full of swirling glitter and a fluttering scarf, as Sylvia slips away with the fictional Peter. It’s a beautiful touch.
Performances from top to bottom are worth watching. Tighe captures Barrie’s tentative then eager demeanor. Lael Van Keuren plays Sylvia with likeable energy and ably performs the anthem “All That Matters,” declaring her parental priorities. Davidson handles the dual role of Charles Frohman, the beleaguered producer, and Captain Hook with a fine sense of intentionally overacting. The four boys (played by six young actors who rotate at various performances) are great fun to watch with pranks during a stuffy dinner party in the first act that involves a lot of shenanigans with a guest’s extreme wig and a scene of charming music-making and play-acting in the second act for the musical number, “We’re All Made of Stars.”
The score of Finding Neverland by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy often feels too Pop inspired and 21st-century for a story set in the Victorian era, as does Mia Michaels’ energetic, angular choreography. But these elements do sustain the show’s momentum. There are several intentional, anachronistic interjections — remarks about fairies in the theater and the dog doing some inappropriate sniffing — that felt jarring, but certainly got the audience laughing. Self-referential observations, including “musical comedy is the lowest form of arts,” are plugged in for laughs but don’t really advance the story.
All in all, Finding Neverland is a family-friendly, visually appealing show.
FINDING NEVERLAND, presented by Broadway in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center, continues through Sunday, Nov. 19. Tickets/more info: cincinnatiarts.org.