Finding Neverland Has Little to Do With Actual Fact in Telling Its Pre-Peter Pan Story

And the biggest applause at curtain went to Porthos (the one wearing the lovely scarf).
And the biggest applause at curtain went to Porthos (the one wearing the lovely scarf).
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

I guess there are duller musicals out there than Finding Neverland, but, to be perfectly honest, I can't think of any.

This one tells the story of how James M. Barrie's immortal Peter Pan came into existence. Based on Allan Knee's 1998 play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, then adapted into the movie Finding Neverland that ill-starred Johnny Depp (2004), this current iteration is as phony as both.

It trades upon the least amount of our passing knowledge (feasts on it like a crocodile) about the “boy who wouldn't grow up” but weaves a most deceptive tale that disrespects Barrie and cheapens Pan. There's hardly anything in it that reads true to actual fact. And if anyone watching this distortion comes away thinking that Sir James was a lovely young thing (Billy Harrigan Tighe) who only struggled with an overactive boyish imagination, or that Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer), the mother of the brood of children Barrie met in Kensington Gardens, had an requited love affair with the famous author, or that the boys came up with the gist of the story before ever meeting Barrie, there's a bridge in London I'd like to sell you.

Tighe, much too tall, much too handsome, much too smooth for diminutive, painfully shy Barrie, is just right for this absolutely false bio makeover. Although he seems fresh out of college, Tighe is a Broadway veteran with former leads in Wicked, Pippin and Book of Mormon. He possesses charm, a powerful, reedy tenor, an athletic vivacity – and would never, ever be confused with short, introverted, sexually repressed J.M.B.

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The real story of Barrie's Pan is so much more fascinating, convoluted and ripe with forbidden sexual overtones. The story grows ever more dark as the years progress: the gossipy divorce of the Barries in 1909; the death of first-born George in the trenches during WW I; the suicide of Michael while at Oxford by drowning with his best friend in 1921; Barrie's unbearable depression afterward (Michael was Barrie's “most favored one”), which totally changed him for the worst; Jack's depression and physical deterioration in 1959; Peter's depression and suicide in the London underground in 1960. The fifth brother, Nicholas, was only a baby when Barrie met the boys, and isn't mentioned in the musical. He seems to have survived unscathed, dying in 1980, the last “lost boy.”

Perhaps most insidious of the musical's whitewashing: Arthur Llewelyn Davies, Sylvia's adored husband, was very much alive during the period when Neverland takes place and lived for three years after Pan's theatrical premiere, when he died horribly from disfiguring jaw cancer in 1907. Sylvia died in 1910 from a cancerous tumor too near her heart for surgery. Frohman's theatrical company did not perform Peter Pan in a private showing for her while she was lying on her deathbed. (She didn't even know she was dying; nobody had the heart to tell her.)

Neverland is shameless in its attempt to wring sympathy, or any other emotion, out of us like sponges. The musical is pretty much of a mess, not knowing exactly what it wants to be. If the creators were honest, the show demands someone with Sondheim's gritty irony to give voice and do justice to what inky swirls lie underneath the prim Edwardian pose. The real story, for all its childhood obsession, is dank and creepy. What would you say to a 40-year-old man who wheedles his way into a happy home and appropriates the children, playing with them incessantly, tucking them into bed at night, paying for outings in the country and their schooling, and every so often snaps photographs of the tykes naked? This is not musical comedy territory, but the writers mine the obvious with cheap jokes about fairies in the theater or the sight of a fat actor flying.

What we're given are anemic Broadway anthems that will no doubt show up on The Voice, or this summer's newest competition show, Boy Band. In fact, Neverland has a boy band all its own, the four Llewelyn brothers who rock through “We're All Made of Stars,” banging sticks, drum and each other. They're cute as anything. (There are six mentioned in the program, and they all do double or triple duty on the road tour. For their mothers' sake, here they are: Jordan Cole, Finn Faulconer, Tyler Patrick Hennessy, Ben Krieger, Colin Wheeler and Mitchell Wray. For the record, the young actor who played Peter on Tuesday night has a solid set of pipes. He also gets the best number, the poignant duet with Barrie, “When Your Feet Don't Touch the Ground,” Barrie's response to the boy's grief over losing his father and, soon, his mother.)

The music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy are generic at best and all sound utterly alike, no matter who is singing or, worse, what they're singing about. There's not a drop of period anywhere in the music. The production numbers are graceless, big and loud, that's about it, or remind us of any number of better-quality family shows, like Annie or Mary Poppins.

Oh, yes, Barrie's dog, Porthos, gets a turn in the spotlight too. He's adorably played by “Sammy,” whose agent should be very proud indeed of this canine scene-stealer; he gets the loudest applause of anyone at curtain call. If he winds up like the big mutt in the first scene of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I wouldn't be the least surprised. Look out, Sammy, there's an actor on the catwalk. Here comes a sandbag.

I guess there's been so much tweaking going on since the show premiered in England in 2012, that everybody's lost focus or lost their jobs. Two years later, for the U.S. premiere at American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts, the show appeared completely reworked with new director, writer, composer, lyricist, choreographer, producer, and cast. It was slightly reworked yet again for its Broadway premiere, 2015. But they still haven't gotten it right.

Even the Tony-winning talents of director Diane Paulus (Pippin, Hair, Porgy and Bess) can't save this impotent show that has no pulse at all. There's little joy in what is there, and not a hint of subterranean darkness. Did anyone involved actually read Barrie or take a cursory glance at one of the many studies into this most peculiar man, who during his lifetime was acclaimed England's greatest writer? What was everyone thinking during tryouts?

The show curtain, however, with its false proscenium, is ravishing – a flocked wallpaper design in vivid reds and blues with gold fringe. At least it looks authentically antique, something that might have hung in the Duke of York's Theatre, where Pan opened. It's the best thing after that dog.

Clap your hands if you believe in Broadway and wasted opportunities.

Finding Neverland continues at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m and 8 p.m. Sunday. Through April 30. BBVA Compass Broadway at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org. $30 to $150.

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Hobby Center for the Performing Arts

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713-315-2525


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