Few stories are as familiar and beloved as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. So much so that it has spawned a host of tangential and ancilllary versions, from prequels (the movie Pan, the play Peter and the Starcatcher), to a film told from the villain’s viewpoint (Hook), to a Disneyfied animated feature and a couple of stage musicals.
No, make that three stage musicals, for two years ago director Diane Paulus collaborated with a trio of Broadway neophytes – pop songwriters Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, along with book writer James Graham – to tell a fictionalized account of how Barrie came to pen Peter Pan. Audiences interested in all things Pan are apparently legion, judging by the show’s year-and-a-half run in New York and by its lengthy national tour, which plays the Kravis Center this week.
Barrie’s tale, as you surely know, is a shameless conglomeration of orphan boys, pirates, Indians, mermaids and pixie dust. Finding Neverland has its own rich stew of ingredients, including an attractive widow with a tubercular cough, her four rambunctious sons, a ditsy troupe of thespians, a worrywart producer, a melody-challenged score and a superlative array of animated projections, often of clouds and stars.
As Finding Neverland’s story goes, Barrie is coming off a failed new play, so desperate for a hit that he has worked himself into a writer’s block. So he takes himself to Kensington Garden for potential inspiration and encounters the Llewelyn Davies boys – George, Jack, Michael and introspective Peter – and their comely mother, Sylvia. Neglecting his own wife and fraying his marriage further, Barrie spends a lot of time with the Llewelyn Davies brood. This sends Victorian tongues wagging, but it also allows Barrie to connect with his youth and to concoct the Peter Pan saga.
And since this is a musical, Barrie begins to have romantic feelings for Sylvia. No, there is no historical evidence of the match, but it does afford Barlow and Kennedy the opportunity for a couple of love ballads, which is justification enough.
Finding Neverland is second-rate stuff, but harmless enough as family entertainment with messages about pursuing your imagination and staying young at heart. The weak score leaves little impression, but it does get loud on occasion for histrionic emphasis. Graham’s script is better, particularly in the second act as the preening rep company begins rehearing Barrie’s peculiar play and as Sylvia’s cough grows worse.
Care was taken with this touring production, which replicates Paulus’s attractive stage pictures. And it is well-cast with matinee idol handsome Billy Harrigan Tighe’s Barrie, well paired with delicate Lael Van Keuren as Sylvia. As Barrie’s producer, John Davidson (Yes, that John Davidson) handles the broader comedy with the character’s commercial instincts and a disdain for tots that rivals W.C. Fields.
A committee of five boys rotate in the role of the Llewelyn Davies kids, all frisky and refreshingly unmannered. Whichever one played Peter on opening night is a genuine heart-melter, though that is surely baked into the role.
The design elements are all first-rate, with particular props going to projection designer Jon Driscoll. There is undeniable magic in Barrie’s tale as you probably discovered with whatever version you first saw as a youngster. Finding Neverland is hardly at the top of the stack, but judging from the audience reaction, it will do.
FINDING NEVERLAND, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Jan. 7. $28 and up. 561-832-7469.