If you throw enough pixie dust and pirates at it, almost any show will fly, if not soar.
That is certainly the case with “Finding Neverland,” the Broadway touring production now at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale for a two week run.
Based on the 2004 movie with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, the stage musical had a notoriously wonky transition to the Great White Way. The show premiered in Leicester, England, in 2012. It was reworked for a run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in 2014 before getting additional polish for the Broadway debut in 2015. There was additional tinkering done (not an unusual thing) for the road tour, which began last year.
It’s still not completely there. But it’s tantalizingly close. Close enough to be an effective and affecting work of theater.
“Finding Neverland” is the story of how the classic play “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Never Grew Up” was incubated by writer J.M. Barrie. In the narrative, Barrie (played opening night by Will Ray) is looking for inspiration after his latest production flops in London’s West End. He finds it in a platonic relationship with the recent widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her four rambunctious sons, including Peter, a role played by Palm Beach Gardens’ Ben Krieger. (Read an interview with 12-year-old Krieger here.)
Set in the very-proper Edwardian era, tongues are soon set to wagging as Barrie’s social climbing wife, Mary Barrie (Lael Van Keuren), and Sylvia’s grande dame mother, Mrs. Du Maurier (Karen Murphy), try to tamper and then damper Barrie’s obsessive play dates with the children. Time and time again we are given effusive dialogue and song lyrics about imagination, playing, adventure and, um, more imagination.
For the adults in the audience — and you should know this is not, strictly speaking, a kiddie musical — there may be a subconscious “Amber Alert” moment when Barrie climbs through the window of the children’s nursery. Barrie has some mom issues, and the children, particularly Peter, has some dad issues — and all of them are circling dark and deathly matters. There’s enough id stuff going on to make a therapist’s eyes glint (unlike the movie, Barrie falls in love with Davies in the show).
All along the way, there are these “Easter eggs” embedded in James Graham’s book that will delight Peter Pan fans. The tick tock of the clock is a motif throughout the show. Peter plays with reflected light off his silverware and Barrie jumps up from the dinner table claiming it is a fairy. Theater producer Charles Frohman (played by Rory Donovan) insists that Barrie’s new play needs a villain, giving the argument an exclamation point by gesturing with his umbrella. A spotlight hits the handle and the shadow cast looks like Captain Hook’s hook. It’s all great, clever fun.
The pleasant-if-not-particularly-memorable score is a pastiche of peppy pop, which makes sense considering the composer is Gary Barlow (with writing partner Eliot Kennedy), the former frontman of British boy band Take That. And the choreography by Mia Michaels, best known for her work on TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance” and Cirque du Soleil, seems a little out of sorts with the feel of the story. But even their glossy skills can’t seem to make the production numbers organically rise out of the narrative. They often seem to spring up out of nowhere, full of delightful spectacle but somehow wedged in with a mallet instead of carved out of the story. The humor can be a little too on the nose for some people’s taste.
But then the show wobbles back into focus and exquisitely covers up that strained, slightly forced feeling with calculating sentiment and clever stagecraft (there is a stunning, particularly touching special effect late in the second act that will leave a lump in the throat of even the most hardened theater goer).
And just like magic, you believe again.
“Finding Neverland” runs June 13-25 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Avenue, in Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays (6:30 p.m. Sunday), with matinees 2 p.m. Saturdays (and Wednesday, June 21) and 1 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $35-$115. To order, call 954-462-0222 or go to BrowardCenter.org.