For a show that’s all about the imaginative spark that gave birth to Peter Pan, “Finding Neverland” is kind of flat.
Certainly there are fleeting treats in the Broadway tour that opened Halloween night at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. There is the sprightly dance of a fairy light that represents Tinkerbell. Mia Michael’s antic choreography and Scott Pask’s set design evoke the early 20th-century London milieu of the story. And the cast works tirelessly to breathe comic life into the musical whose score, by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, is lush and descriptive, and beautifully rendered by conductor Fred Lassen.
But the production, based on the 2004 film starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, is freighted by a debilitating inertia, especially in the first act. And it’s not just because the subject matter is more meditative than active. The show’s stasis is partly due to choices made by director Diane Paulus, who often has the characters plant themselves and sing (“park and bark” in theater parlance).
“Neverland” is a story about the creative process, addressing a well-worn question often directed to artists: How did you come up with the idea? For Peter Pan’s creator, Scottish writer J.M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe), “Neverland” is the 2 ½-hour answer.
When we meet Barrie, he’s in a creative rut that is driving his American producer nuts (as played by the charismatically entertaining John Davidson, who also doubles as Captain Hook). Barrie has been writing the same story, with different details, over and over again. This is shown to him by Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Lael Van Keuren), a bright young widow and admirer who has her four raucous boys in tow when they meet in Kensington Gardens.
Barrie is taken by the boys’ freedom and creativity — they like to make up stories about pirates and cowboys and Indians — and becomes especially fond of the bookish Peter Davies. Barrie encourages the boys to continue their play, and even brings them into his life, at the cost of his own marriage.
The musical, which doubles as a paean to London, has two fetching songs — “The World Is Upside Down” and the four-part “Circus of Your Mind” — but also some pretty vapid lyrics and a medley of nursery rhymes that suggests the creators themselves ran out of ideas.
Given the material, the principal performers do well. Tighe is competent as Barrie, who goes from buttoned-up to liberated by the boys’ youthful abandon. Van Keuren is a much stronger performer, whose openness and honesty gets us to root for her sweet character. Their work, and that of the entertaining cast, gives “Neverland” its flashes of magic.
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