Dallas — If Peter Pan is the boy who wouldn’t grow up, J. M. Barrie, his creator, was the man who would prefer to go back to being a boy, if the creators of Finding Neverland are to be believed. The origins of this last show in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s 2016-’17 Broadway Series go back to the 2004 Weinstein-produced Johnny Depp movie, though this has taken many turns and tumbles to get here, all that friction leaves it shiny, smooth and like a stone out of the polisher, beautiful—if a little cold.
Billy Harrigan Tighe plays the famous author as well as our narrator. From the outset, he is our gentle friend, explaining the world and circumstances in which he created his most famous character. Scott Pask’s set featuring book illustrations and Jon Driscoll’s clever projections creates turn of the century London where Barrie is already a famous author/playwright with a producer, Charles Frohman (John Davidson), insisting on his next play. He meets Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (the honey voiced Christine Dwyer) and her rambunctious boys in Kensington Park. They spark his imagination just as she confirms his nagging suspicion of the shortcomings of his work. The movement of the play will be to weave a story around the sources of inspiration that became Peter Pan.
Thus the title: Finding Neverland.
So much of this is true that it is clear why the creators have been so invested, but the old saw “It writes itself” doesn’t apply here. In this case the book comes from James Graham with music and lyrics from Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. From the movie through the workshops and performances across the pond and on the Great White Way, the quirks of real life have been simplified or even sanitized in pursuit of commercial success. Ironically, the opposite instinct was at play in the creation of the play that this show celebrates.
When Barrie unveils his new play that features kids and pirates, a dog and a crocodile to the players in Frohman’s troupe, they are ready for revolt. Director Diane Paulus, with Mia Michaels’ choreographic reinforcement, has created a heightened style for the troupe, who also double as townspeople. In Suttirat Anne Larlab’s period costumes, they function chorus-like, representing the worldview of the time. It provides a launching pad from which Barrie can depart into the world of the plain-speaking Davies and her innocent-if-wild boys.
The evening wouldn’t have a chance without them.
Connor Jameson Casey, Turner Birthisel, Wyatt Cirbus, Tyler Patrick Hennessy play the boys who inspire “the lost boys.” In a production full of accomplished triple-threat performers, these guys still know how to play. Whether the haughty dinner scene with its fun time-stop gimmick or their own backyard jam session, they breathe a bit of unpredictability into what is otherwise a slightly stuffy evening.
Part of the problem is that the real life story is too complicated.
Barrie is married to an actress, Mary Barrie (Kristine Reese). It’s conveniently dispatched with him finding her indiscreetly with the foppish Lord Cannan (Noah Plomgren). Davies is already conveniently widowed for the purpose of the play. The creators choose to link his self-discovery as a writer with their slowly warming love affair. Not that writing is passionless, but it feels so pen and ink that when they finally kiss, it seems out of place.
The great irony is the message of the play is that we should embrace the darker side of ourselves to really break through. Titan John Davidson gets to embody the message by playing the pushy producer as well as Captain Hook. His Frohman menaces and hits his marks, but remains safely in within the London worldview. His Hook, on the other hand (literally), has a desperation and danger that is absent everywhere else. Though the little ones in our row had fallen asleep during the unquestionably beautiful singing of the first Act, the ending number with its pirates, cannons and passion had them and us hooked back in.
The second act mixes the success of the Barrie’s play with other hard realities. True to form, it only touches lightly on anything difficult, though. The final trick in their repertoire is a stunning glittery spectacle perfect for the narrative sleight of hand necessary to avoid life’s hardest truth that comes also at the end.
The evening is at the carousel level of theme park rides: beautiful and safe for the whole family.
But it just leaves you off right where you started.