“You’re a writer. You make up stories. That isn’t particularly grown-up.” This critique by young Peter Llewelyn Davies of J.M. Barrie’s profession applies equally to Finding Neverland, a show that seems best suited for children.
Set in Edwardian London circa 1903, this musical adaptation of the 2004 Oscar-nominated film is essentially the origin story of how Barrie came to create the work for which he’s now most famous. It will likely delight children and Peter Pan fans, but otherwise the show is like an ersatz Mary Poppins without the iconic songs, dance sequences or charm.
The story begins with J.M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe), a playwright in crisis, looking for a hit in order to save a theater in crisis, run by American producer Charles Frohman (Tom Hewitt). Barrie frequents Kensington Gardens to try to cure his writer’s block, and there he meets the Llewelyn Davies boys — George (Finn Faulconer), Jack (Mitchell Wray), Michael (Jordan Cole) and Peter (Ben Krieger) — as well as their widowed mother, Sylvia (Christine Dwyer). Inspired by the kids’ imaginations, Barrie becomes a father figure to them. He’s also drawn to their mother, despite the fact that he’s already married.
As Barrie becomes closer with the Llewelyn family, his wife (Crystal Kellogg) divorces him and Sylvia’s mother, Mrs. du Maurier (Karen Murphy), continues to cast a skeptical eye toward Barrie’s relationship with her daughter and grandsons. Barrie’s interactions with the boys provide breadcrumbs of inspiration, which he follows in crafting the narrative of Peter Pan. Frohman and the acting company are initially resistant to the new play, believing it to be an unserious piece of theater, but Barrie wins them over, even as he begins to lose Sylvia to “consumption” (presumably).
Director Diane Paulus is most successful staging Mia Michaels’ precisely and energetically choreographed sequences in numbers such as “Believe” and “The Dinner Party.” Both feature a marriage of movement and props that creates the strongest part of the show: spectacle. That spectacle is rounded out by Jon Driscoll’s multidimensional projections, Scott Pask’s colorful set pieces beautifully illuminated by Kenneth Posner’s dappled lighting, and Daniel Wurtzel’s “air sculpture,” which provides a magical finale.
Where Paulus stumbles is in the direction of the comedic bits, which feel formulaic. Combine that with James Graham’s overly saccharine book glossing over the difficulties of life, and the show starts to become cartoonish in its easy resolutions. Losing parents to tuberculosis, divorce and the pressures of creating art are fertile sources for real drama but, alas, there is little to be found here. A younger audience may not mind as much, given the distraction of spectacle, but many adults will find it less than compelling.
Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy’s score and lyrics are cheerful, but the songs rely too much on familiar melodic elements to be memorable. Tighe and Dwyer have pleasant voices and good chemistry, but it often feels as if — in true British form — they are holding back something. Hewitt delights in being the inspiration for Captain Hook, and the kids deliver lively performances, enhancing the “cute” factor of a show that squarely qualifies as family entertainment. Did I mention there's a dog, too?
Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through March 12. (800) 982-2787. HollywoodPantages.com