By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
Like his American contemporary counterpart, author L. Frank Baum, James M. Barrie was a London playwright, who spun a tale that enchanted children so much that his creation is still a part of the popular lexicon of children’s fare.
In the case of Barrie, his creation had nothing to do with flying witches, but instead focused on flying boys and children who refused to grow up in a fabled land called Neverland.
Peter Pan became so popular in London that it served as the inspiration across the pond for several Broadway musicals in the decades that followed including one penned by Leonard Bernstein and another by Carolyn Leigh and Morris Charlap with additional music by Julie Styne and lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden. The historic black and white NBC broadcasts that starred Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard first in 1955 and remounted in 1956 became two of the more memorable early TV shows and led to a later version in color in 1960. More recently, a live performance on NBC starred Allison Williams in the title role.
Unlike colorful creations like Captain Hook or flickering lights designed to represent the fairy Tinkerbelle, Barrie’s personal life was quite commonplace and dull. His life story was told in a book by Allan Knee titled “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” and was adapted into a play and motion picture by David Magee.
This is the backdrop of Finding Neverland, the musical by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy with book by James Graham.
It is a very taut tale and requires a great deal of exposition in the first act. Billy Harrigan Tighe plays the role of J. M. Barrie very well with a fine voice and stage presence that clearly comes easily to him. A dashing figure, he plays opposite his whining and restive wife Mary Barrie (Christine Reese) and a widow, Sara Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer), who has four boys in tow.
The at-first innocent connection between Dwyer and Tighe is the more noted of the two pairings and eventually leads to scandal for the Barries.
But like the character he depicted famously on stage, Barrie has the untamed heart of a boy and his ability to understand and bond with the Davies boys, especially a budding writer named Peter, is at the center of this musical tale. Twelve different actors play the four different Llewelyn Davies children.
Also of note is Tom Hewitt, who plays both American promoter Charles Frohman and the character of Captain James Hook, who is summoned from Barrie’s sub-conscience to comment on his life and advise him in affairs of the heart. Hewitt is a powerful presence whenever he is on stage in either of his two persona.
The stage performers in Frohman’s troupe of players include standouts Dwelvan David, Matt Wolpe and Lael Van Keuren.
Because it is based on fact, there is sadness in this story and, while the sorrow is heartfelt, it does not last for long between songs.
While the are some very lovely and strong songs including “My Imagination,” “Neverland,” “Stronger” and “What You Mean to Me,” they don’t have the lasting power of the earlier renditions of Peter Pan in the Mary Martin productions.
Again, this is not the story of Peter Pan, but the story of his creator and his very real problems of how to put on a hit show and manage his life. It is not intended for very young children or should be suggested for those who are still in early education.
The lighting design by Kenneth Posner is at times very simple, while at often very intricately displayed with projections by Jon Driscoll that effectively move scenes along. Outstanding costumes were rendered by Suttirat Anne Larlarb with delightful choreography by Mia Michaels in this Diane Paulus directed opus.
Finding Neverland continues at the Saenger Theater, 1111 Canal Street, through Sunday, May 14. For more information call 525-1052 or check the website.