Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning… Peter Pan is an iconic story, and the musical adaptation of Finding Neverland, currently playing at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, tells but one iteration. Based on the 2004 movie of the same name, Finding Neverland follows the story of playwright J.M. Barrie and his relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four sons, who became the inspiration for his most famous work, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.
While the movie is a drama, this version is a far more lighthearted and family friendly musical comedy. With music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy and a book by James Graham, it made its world premiere in 2012 in Leicester, England before a 17 month run on Broadway from 2015 to 2016. The story is classic—Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe, with charm for days and a crystal clear voice) is in a creative rut and under pressure by producer Charles Frohman (Tom Hewitt) to write a new play that will save his theater from bankruptcy. One day while writing in Kensington Gardens, Barrie meets Sylvia (Christine Dwyer, earnest and lovely) and her four sons—Peter (Ben Krieger), George (Finn Faulconer), Jack (Mitchell Wray), and Michael (Jordan Cole). While Peter, the eldest, has grown tired of childhood games since the untimely death of their father, the three younger boys have extremely active imaginations and ultimately involve Barrie in their many elaborate adventures, where they often pretend to be pirates, amongst many other characters.
Much to the chagrin of Sylvia’s uptight mother, Mrs. du Maurier (Karen Murphy) and Barrie’s even more uptight wife, Mary (Crystal Kellogg), he begins to spend more and more time with the Llewelyn Davies family, and these experiences give him the inspiration for a new play, Peter Pan. As Barrie prepares to open the show, which he insists will appeal to adults and children alike, Sylvia grows increasingly ill, a fact she attempts to hide from Barrie and the boys.
As a musical, which notably received zero Tony nominations for its Broadway run, Finding Neverland is quite a mixed bag. For a story about the very concept of imagination, it is often strangely lacking in exactly that. Many of the songs, particularly in act one, are plot-heavy and staged in a way that lacks creativity. Fans of the movie will be at least temporarily thrown by the tone, which embraces overly stereotypical characters that demand over-the-top performances (the only characters with less depth than Barrie’s intentionally horrid wife are the members of the theater’s acting troupe, who exist purely for comic relief). The music is pleasant yet forgettable, and moments such as the introduction of Captain Hook (also played by Hewitt) as a sort of devil on Barrie’s shoulder felt forced in for the sake of including an iconic character.
That being said, the show finally found some grounded human emotion in act two, which was also much more visually inventive. While Sylvia’s illness and ultimate death were fairly glazed over for much of the story, the moments preceding it were heartfelt and moving, largely thanks to the genuine performances of Harrigan Tighe, Dwyer, and the four spectacularly talented young boys who stole every scene they were in. The staging of Sylvia’s death is as romanticized as a heartbreak that leaves behind four orphans could be, but falls in line with the optimistic spin placed on the entire story. The musical shines brightest in the scene where Barrie brings the acting troupe to Sylvia’s home so she can witness her own version of opening night. By the time the audience is called upon to clap to save Tinkerbell’s life, you will feel so charmed that you cannot help but join in.
In reality, the events portrayed here are not the end of the many tragedies that befell the real life Llewelyn Davies family. Both Peter and Michael ultimately committed suicide, and George was killed on the battlefield in World War I. Of course, such occurrences have no place in a musical aimed towards families, although I found it interesting that many audience members could be heard commenting on how uplifting the story was while exiting the theater. The musical certainly takes a glass half full outlook, but perhaps an ability to transform sadness into optimism is part of the magic of the boy who never grew up.
Finding Neverland runs at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through March 12th. It is recommended for ages 7 and up, and tickets start at $35. The actors playing the Llewelyn Davies boys rotate depending on the performance and those mentioned in this review appeared on opening night. To purchase tickets for Los Angeles, click here. For information about upcoming tour stops, including Tempe, Costa Mesa, and San Diego, click here.