REVIEW: I BELIEVE! I BELIEVE! ‘Finding Neverland’ Beckons Your Inner Child

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“Finding Neverland” by Jeremy Daniel.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Peter Pan has been flying around the planet and inspiring audiences for well over a century. Since J.M. Barrie’s original “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” in 1904, countless adaptations have graced the page, stage and cinema, including the prequel “Peter and the Starcatcher,” the Upstate’s  hottest new play this season.

And now the 2015 Broadway musical “Finding Neverland” swoops into the Peace Center with all of its pixie dust, imagination and heartwarming sentimentality. Meticulously faithful to the 2004 Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet film, which in glorious circular fashion is itself based on Allan Knee’s play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” “Finding Neverland” features  music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy and a book by James Graham.

This version tells the true story of Barrie and the impetus behind the eponymous character Peter and his adventures with Wendy and the Lost Boys.

Barrie, embodied here with facetious perfection by Billy Harrigan Tighe (Broadway ‘s “Pippin” and “The Book of Mormon”), is already a successful playwright reeling from a lousy reception to his latest work, meets his muses for “Peter Pan” in London’s Kensington Gardens in the form of four very young lads: George, Jack, Michael and Peter, played with vigor and gusto by an alternating cast of fellows and on this evening the outstanding Bergman Freedman, Turner Birthisel, Tyler Patrick Hennessy and Colin Wheeler.

And despite being married to Mary (Kristine Reese), he embarks on a platonic friendship with the boy’s widowed mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, brought to life by the impeccable soprano Christine Dwyer (Broadway’s Elphaba in “Wicked”).

A kid at heart, Barrie becomes their father figure and playmate and enthralls the Lost Boys with fanciful tales of Neverland, fairies and pirates which ultimately become the basis for “Peter Pan.”

Dubious at first, theater producer Charles Frohman (played with maximum comedic effect by John Davidson, co-host of TV’s 1980s show “That’s Incredible!”) and his company stage “Peter Pan” and it’s an instant sensation.

Rounding out the main cast is the ebullient Broadway veteran Karen Murphy as Sylvia’s mother who disapproves  of impish Barrie’s relationship with Sylvia and the boys.

Oh and it’s refreshing to see a live dog on stage (remember “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”?) and a very well-trained one at that: the St. Bernard named Sammy.

While the sophisticated orchestrations are superb and varied (from Irish folk music to the brooding imagery in “Circus of the Mind”), many of the songs fall into the nostalgic but less memorable category. But multiple Tony-winning director Diane Paulus’ (“Hair” and “Porgy and Bess” and more recently “Waitress” and “Pippin”) presentation  elevates the material in a decisively winsome fashion, particularly the Dinner Party and pub scenes choreographed by Mia Michaels, as well as and some simple, but decisively delightful, surprises in the finale.

There are some down-tempo numbers that will definitely stick with you though such as Ms. Dwyer in “All That Matters” (which could easily be a hit for Celine Dion), her stupendous ballad “What You Mean to Me” with Tighe, and Tighe and young Wheeler in “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground.”

The production’s scenic design by Scott Pask is sparing for the most part and uses many stage tricks of Edwardian England buoyed with modern devices such as set pieces on tracks, gentle video projections by Jon Driscoll, illusions by Paul Kieve, and an awe-inspiring air sculpture (yes, that’s a thing apparently) by Daniel Wurtzel.

“Finding Neverland” also features dynamic costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb (“Waitress”), lighting by award- winning Kenneth Posner (three Tony nominations in 2013 for “Kinky Boots,”  “Pippin” and “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella”), sound design by Jonathan Deans  and music direction by Ryan Cantwell.

Even though “Finding Neverland” was passed over by the Tony committee in 2015, and was nominated for a few Drama Desk and Drama League awards, this musical is bound to tug at your heartstrings with its themes of innocence, hope and love. And though it may never grow up, I BELIEVE this work will only improve with age.

 “Finding Neverland” continues through July 30 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main Street in Greenville. Call (864) 467-3000 or visit http://www.peacecenter.org.

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