“Finding Neverland” arrives in Memphis this week in search of magic.
Based on the 2004 movie of the same name, the show has undergone tweaks since it first opened on Broadway in 2015. It’s a production not without problems, but a visual feast for the eyes. The original Broadway show ran for a respectable 17 months but had trouble finding its footing due to a cliched love story and bad reviews. The problems with this version of “Finding Neverland” are no fault of the cast. The story follows J.M. Barrie (played with boyish jolliness by Billy Harrigan Tighe) as he attempts to find inspiration for his play “Peter Pan”. Barrie is grappling with manhood and growing older; what do you do when you can’t use your imagination anymore, he wonders? You’ve probably heard this story before – a man is struggling to mature while the women around him help him “grow up”. He finds his inspiration in Sylvia (Lael Van Keuren), a “beautiful” widow who has four young sons: Jack, George, Michael, and Peter. J.M. quickly bonds with the boys and conveniently falls in love with Sylvia. The story is thin as ice but the actors lend as much charm as they can to the roles.
The four child actors in the roles of Sylvia’s children are some of the best I’ve seen in touring Broadway productions. Sure, their lines can be hokey but they all play their characters in earnest. Also a star: Sammy, the boys’ live, fluffy dog. She had Tuesday’s audience eating out of her paws every time she walked onstage.
Watching this show with its gusto of British pride (despite some of the cast slipping out of British accents), I couldn’t help but reference “Mary Poppins”. At any moment I was waiting for a character to burst into “A Spoonful of Sugar”. But perhaps that’s because the music just isn’t as great as it should be. The two numbers I was most impressed with were largely thanks to the talents of Tighe and Van Keuren. Tighe’s “Stronger”, performed right before intermission, could very well be a pop song – if it weren’t about writer’s block. Tighe’s duet with Van Keueren “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” proved to be a crowd favorite.
Scott Pask’s set design adds the required whimsical effect to move the show along at a brisk pace. While the first act requires some patience to get through, the second act has a true spark to it. I’d like to argue that the show should end on a hauntingly gorgeous uses of glitter and chiffon – it is truly touching moment that choked me up. But this is a show that desires to spell out the emotions for you and unfortunately, there is still 15 minutes to go after this moment.
“Do you believe?” Barrie asks the children near the end of the show. “Finding Neverland” is at its most beautiful when it lets the audience believe and see the subtle magic themselves.
Note: TONIGHT is rush night for students, teachers, and heroes. More information is here. You can buy $20 cash-only tickets at the door if you have a photo I.D.
See “Finding Neverland” live through Sunday. Purchase tickets here. Showtimes vary.