Finding Neverland, now at the Civic Theatre on tour for Broadway/San Diego, is a big, floppy, overstuffed pouf of a musical, suitable for all audiences and guaranteed to leave no acrid aftertaste.
And what a congress for magpies it is: A chunk of purloined creativity here, historical characters stuffed into stereotype casings there, bits of sneaky charm scattered everywhere. It’s all based on that ageless collection of comfortable old fantasies gathered by that magpie for the ages, J. M. Barrie, under the banner he emblazoned “Peter Pan.”
Risks have no place in this show. Just as people “fly” only with carefully rigged cables, so do the book, music, lyrics, staging and story proceed only in the most familiar of grooves. Barrie took all the risks, a century ago. Everybody knows how the story comes out, so there’s no suspense. This show is betting on a mild interest in how it all came to be. How Barrie found this Neverland.
In a surprise for theatre-history nerds, the creation narrative stays plausibly close to the facts. Barrie was a successful mainstream dramatist of standard fare in the London theatre when he abruptly veered into the particular brand of Edwardian fantasy that took Alice to Wonderland, Dorothy to Oz and assorted other children into psychodrama landscapes which rolled them into a more enlightened adulthood. Even George Bernard Shaw approved.
Barrie credited the inspiration for Peter Pan to time spent with the five sons of a couple he knew. Their father had died and their mother was sickly so the boys blossomed under Barrie’s determined attention. His own childless marriage was deteriorating and all the time spent with the young widow and her beautiful boys raised eyebrows, although the steel-bound sexual repression of that post-Victorian era muffled comment.
The widow part becomes a conventional love story here and the boys retain their innocence with nary a trace of innuendo. That’s left to the actors in rehearsal, where never a fairy joke is left unsniggered.
Another stock character drafted from real life is Charles Frohman, the bull producer of the day who moved product profitably between Broadway and the West End. He’s seen as the skeptical boss who must be made to believe. There also are assorted relatives, actors, stage hands, servants and so forth, the usual stuff of period creation melodrama.
There’s nothing in James Grahams’ meandering script, as Barrie harnesses an imagination he’s repressed, that accounts for the play’s comfortable zest. The songs by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy are bright and useful, though clumsy in the rhyming department (blind/time, young/fun, chains/change). What drives the show’s energy is the execution.
The actors, especially the leads, are fully invested. Billy Harrigan Tighe is earnest and open as Barrie and Christine Dwyer manages to find the ingénue in the widow. Their songs probably have more passionate yearnings than the roles deserve, and they do tend to croon them at odds with the period. But the romance, even the “Aw, shucks” part, is certainly there.
Who does everything right is Tom Hewitt, as Frohman and sometimes Capt. Cook. He dominates whenever he chooses and his bright, classical baritone sells his songs with robust clarity. Karen Murphy, stuck with the disapproving mother-in-law duties, is comparably upright and poised but she gets no gumdrops to equal Hewitt’s turns as Hook. (Though it’s hard to describe how this works, it does.)
The boys, only four here, were played on opening night with a neat combination of childish charm and artistic discipline by Ben Krieger, Colin Wheeler, Mitchell Wray and Jordan Cole. It’s certainly not their fault that the piping soprano singing begins to wear.
Director Diane Paulus allows caricature to sneak into the supporting roles. Crystal Kellogg is more brittle than necessary as Barrie’s wife and Noah Plomgren is insufferably pompous as her titled suitor. But the depths await in the rehearsal scenes, where Dwelvan David and Matt Wolpe are allowed far too much slapstick leeway as arch, squealing clowns. It’s an operetta tradition, true, but it needs more of the adaptive touch that makes other stuff work so well.
Pretty much everything is borrowed but with clever understanding of what works. The designers mesh with no seams showing. When Scott Pask’s scenery comes alive as imagination flames in Act I, Kenneth Posner’s lighting and the truly spectacular projections of Jon Drisco moves the show right through the proscenium and into the audience’s laps, with the wow-meter reading full ahead.
Choreographer Mia Michaels moves her people in chunks with outriggers of period prancing nicely set off by the immaculate period costumes of Suttirat Anne Larlarb.
Director Diane Paulus may be the life-force source. She handles the kids deftly, not asking for too much. She manages to edge by the death and adultery without sagging and she has every element of the piece in sync, even the fans that make some of the glitter flow up instead of down.
Apparently, only eight musicians produced the effective but not pushy accompaniment. Several names are credited with aspects of the music – Simon Hale for orchestrations – but one that stands out is David Chase, a wily veteran.
Oh, and Tinker Bell is alive and well, since this audience was as unable as any other since the 1904 premiere to avoid supplying the applause that proves theatre-goers, at least, still believe in fairies.
(Continuing at the Civic Theatre through April 9, 2017.)