‘Finding Neverland’ is a solid musical about ‘Peter Pan’ playwright J.M. Barrie

  • Yet Finding Neverland, a musical about playwright J.M. Barrie now playing at the David A. Straz Jr.
  • Barrie did entertain the boys of the Davies family he met in London’s Kensington Gardens, spontaneous tales that grew into Peter Pan.
  • Barrie meets the four Davies boys — George, Peter, Jack and Michael — as a successful playwright who has run short of inspiration.
  • We hear Billy Harrigan Tighe as Barrie introduce himself vocally in My Imagination, joined in the next number by Christine Dwyer as the plucky Sylvia and the boys in Believe.
  • There’s a lovely tenor-soprano duet, When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground, between Barrie and Ben Krieger as Peter, about the importance of defying the darkest of everyday facts to seize the light and bring a new world into tangible form, at least on a stage.

TAMPA — After the success of Peter and the Starcatcher, still another take on Peter Pan does not seem like something that would attract audiences.

@NeverlandBway: ‘Finding Neverland’ is a solid musical about ‘Peter Pan’ playwright J.M. Barrie via…

TAMPA — After the success of Peter and the Starcatcher, still another take on Peter Pan does not seem like something that would attract audiences.

Yet Finding Neverland, a musical about playwright J.M. Barrie now playing at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, succeeds anyway, mainly because it does not try to live up to anyone’s expectations. The Broadway production, directed by Diane Paulus, with a book by James Graham and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, gets solid backing here with deep casting and a vision all its own.

The story differs from Barrie’s life in biographically significant ways. Barrie did entertain the boys of the Davies family he met in London’s Kensington Gardens, spontaneous tales that grew into Peter Pan. He also struck up a friendship with their mother, but Sylvia Llewelyn Davies was not a widow at the time, nor did she die within a year of their meeting. The story needed those elements to darken the legend and, by introducing death, make it more lifelike.

Lovers of London will appreciate the scenic design by Scott Pask and numerous effects of lighting and projection, which evoke brilliantly surreal park scenes or the moody rain-drenched city. Barrie meets the four Davies boys — George, Peter, Jack and Michael — as a successful playwright who has run short of inspiration. His newest ideas are cosmetic makeovers of old ones, and his American producer is breathing down his neck for more.

With the slap-dash pace of musicals, Barrie realizes his well of ideas has dried up, become a captive of marketing and what other people want. We hear Billy Harrigan Tighe as Barrie introduce himself vocally in My Imagination, joined in the next number by Christine Dwyer as the plucky Sylvia and the boys in Believe. They are a pleasure to listen to, and a promising sign of a well conceived production taking shape. As a bonus, the family dog, a well trained standard poodle mix, makes the first of several entrances in Kensington Gardens.

The euphoria of a freshly triggered imagination makes it easy for the playwright to dramatically tear up his latest manuscript. What’s stopping him from creating a new unbridled fantasy filled with pirates and mermaids and Tinker Bell? A lot.

Charles Frohman, the producer, thinks it’s a crazy idea, particularly the target audience. “Children don’t have any money,” he says. Rory Donovan reprises the dual role he played on the Broadway production, as Frohman and Capt. James Hook. This accomplishes much more than saving Finding Neverland’s costs. A rip-snorting Hook dares Barrie to drop the conventions that have kept him in high society and by implication his loveless marriage to an unfaithful partner (the icy Mary, nicely played by Kristine Reese) and find himself — “the part you don’t like to talk about at those parties, with the little cakes and those cucumber sandwiches.”

The 19th-century cast, enamored with a declaiming style of acting, also resists the realism and childlike spontaneity as Peter Pan comes into being. Comically drawn characters and settings, down to the purple wallpaper of Barrie’s elegant dining room, fade soon enough with the intervention of tragedy.

There’s a lovely tenor-soprano duet, When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground, between Barrie and Ben Krieger as Peter, about the importance of defying the darkest of everyday facts to seize the light and bring a new world into tangible form, at least on a stage. The result is a tidy play, the magic of which shines through because it isn’t shouted. Its greatest strengths lie in those sentiments not stated explicitly — that life can be dirty and unfair, with wounds in every department. Nothing ameliorates those realities, yet a transformative imagination can overcome them.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

‘Finding Neverland’ is a solid musical about ‘Peter Pan’ playwright J.M. Barrie

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