Finding Our Own Neverland

There is the magic, and then there’s the magic trick. On the long road from playwright J.M. Barrie’s real life to numerous books and a play, from that play to big-budget movie, and from that movie to the Broadway stage, the musical called Finding Neverland has taken on plenty of both.

That’s not to say it’s not a winning, touching and vaguely inspiring evening, for it is all those things. We are successfully reminded of the child within us all, we are encouraged to keep him or her closer to the surface than we otherwise might as adults, and we are promised, with far less evidence onstage or in life, that the child within is exactly who or what we need to weather marriage, divorce, serious illness and death. That is, after all, the message of Barrie’s most famous creation, that boy who never grows up named Peter Pan. Isn’t it?

Truth is, we can say only that it’s the message of this spirited, seemingly heartfelt and altogether loud musical that shows up at the National Theatre in Peter Pan’s name. The national touring company is there for six more performances from tonight until Sunday. And since it presents itself, quite successfully, as a family musical, by all means bring the entire family. The younger they are, the more they are positioned to like it.

The ambiguity of this particular chapter in Barrie’s life, and even his green-suited creation, is missing here. The message glosses over the entire concern that became popular among married women in the ‘70s and ‘80s (“A boy who never grows up? No thanks. I’m already married to him!”), not to mention the darker underpinnings that are deleted almost completely, beyond a couple of go-nowhere references. What really, do we say in our time about a middle-aged married man who becomes obsessed with a beautiful widow and especially her four vulnerable, suddenly fatherless young boys?    

Indeed, even the iconic 1950s black-and-white TV version starring Mary Martin had more psychological complexity. Many remember the moment they realized the same actor was playing both the boys’ bossy father, Mr. Darling, AND the evil pirate, Captain James Hook. And to this day, we can be intrigued by what Freud would say about a “lost boy” who visits his beloved Wendy when she herself has become a wife and mother, rejects her pleading to be taken back to Neverland because she’s “too grown up” – and then takes the woman’s daughter.

This can be dreamy, positive stuff, and always was presented with a big grin. With a handful of clever songs and dances thrown in on black and white TV. Yet it also resonates over the decades with all we’re forced to leave behind. None of that is here, since apparently life doesn’t make us leave anything behind. No, not really. Not if we… believe.

 With those caveats firmly in place, and no hope of the layers Johnny Depp brought to the role of Barrie in the film, the musical of Finding Neverland works its stage magic. Some has been there forever – yes, believing in fairies (like Tinker Bell) is all – though the show’s book by James Graham is replete with funny, cynical Broadway references that each age in the audience ”gets” as much as it gets. Do you believe in fairies, someone asks an actor in the play Barrie is writing. “I’m in the theater,” comes the perfectly timed droll response. “I see them every dayyyy!”

The music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy are what you’d expect from impressive veterans who’ve written songs for (combined) the likes of Sir Elton John, Shirley Bassey, Bryan Adams, Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion and even the Spice Girls. Ballads are big and very belty, especially Wendy’s semi-anthem “All That Matters” and Barrie’s first-act finale “Stronger,” in which he decides to more or less become a pirate – but then remains a simple, if rather wealthy, playwright in London. The song does nothing and means little. But it’s a really terrific song, full of pirates and swords and ropes and things.

Jeff Sullivan makes a believable Barrie every step of the way, lending his light tenor to solos, duets with Wendy and lots of fun ensemble pieces, many of which poke fun at life in the theater. Ruby Gibbs brings a full-voiced rendition of speaking and singing to Wendy – or more factually, to Sylvia Llewelyn Davis, the doomed woman who with her sons plays such a role in handing Barrie the story of his life.

Conor McGiffin comes close to stealing the show, as intended, since he gets to be the affably rapacious theater producer who doubles as Hook. Whoever plays Hook clearly gets to have the most fun in this musical. And the kids who play Sylvia’s sons, one of whom is named Peter, are all awesome, at one point singing a cute quartet of their own, with ukulele and lots of things to bang sticks on.

The staging and choreography are first-rate throughout, especially in the playful handling of flying. We watch as actors in rehearsal for Barrie’s play struggle with the cables that help them fly, but Barrie and his story are more earthbound and indeed more magical. Near the end, when flying becomes far more than a metaphor, the result is closer to ballet than special effects. And in those moments, even if only in those moments, we really can believe.

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