Family-friendly ‘Finding Neverland’ charms but never quite soars

The 2004 film “Finding Neverland” would not seem, at first blush, to be a natural fit for a Broadway musical comedy. Directed by Marc Forster, with a screenplay by David Magee based on Allan Knee’s play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” the movie starred Johnny Depp as the playwright J. M. Barrie and related the story of his relationship with a young widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and her four sons, who served as his inspiration when writing “Peter Pan.”

Billy Harrigan Tighe and John Davidson in “Finding Neverland.” Contributed by Jeremy Daniel

Though well received and nominated for several Academy Awards, “Finding Neverland” didn’t exactly beg to burst into song. Nevertheless, in 2014 a musical adaptation with a book by James Graham and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy hit the scene, transferring to Broadway the next year. Though the show closed within a year, it has found new life in its U.S. national tour, which Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts now bring to Bass Concert Hall through Jan. 21.

This musical version of “Finding Neverland,” directed by Diane Paulus with choreography by Mia Michaels, is, in a word, charming. What’s more, it is a family-friendly production that is accessible to kids as well as adults, something that is a rarity in contemporary Broadway fare.

In order to make the film a more natural fit for a musical, the production plays up the text’s comedic side a great deal, reveling at times in its own silliness, which can be a bit at odds with the more melancholy aspects of the story. However, the cast is able to hit both notes superbly.

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The talented ensemble shines in the scenes where they are asked to play the theater company producing “Peter Pan,” allowing the real-life performers as well as their stage personas to boisterously cavort amid moments of brilliant but simple theatrical magic. The young actors who play the Llewelyn Davies boys are at their most endearing during these moments of energetic play, as is John Davidson, as the warmly grouchy Charles Frohman (and, in fantasy sequences, Captain Hook).

The two adult leads, on the other hand, though enjoyable in the play’s louder moments, truly show their strength during the quieter, more bittersweet scenes. As J.M. Barrie, Billy Harrigan Tighe is a consummate leading man, imbuing Barrie with an instant likability and boyish glee that only serves to underscore his more contemplative depths, which we get to see later in the play. Similarly, Lael Van Keuren, as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, shines brightest when given the chance to explore the more solemn dimensions of her character, beyond just doting mother to the four boys.

Though “Finding Neverland” is well paced and movingly told, with a decent first act and very strong second act, there is a fatal flaw that keeps it from achieving perfection — its music. Though the score is evocative, and many of the songs are fun and serviceable to the plot, none of it is very memorable. The show-stopping aspects of the production come more from staging and performance than from the music itself, which is lackluster at best, preventing what is a well-produced show from truly soaring as a great musical.

Though it shies away from the upper echelons of the musical theater canon, “Finding Neverland” is nevertheless an endearing show that provides plenty of moments of shining theatrical brilliance.

“FINDING NEVERLAND”
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 18-20, 2 p.m. Jan. 20 and 1 and 7 p.m. Jan. 21
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Cost: $30-$150
Information: texasperformingarts.org

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