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Theater Review: “Finding Neverland”

The story behind the story of "Peter Pan" comes to life in "Finding Neverland" at San Diego's Civic Theatre.
Photo credit:
Jeremy Daniel

Peter Pan finally gets to fly in the last scene of “Finding Neverland,” but the rest of the show seems distressingly earthbound.

The national tour of the musical about writer J.M. Barrie and the writing of the beloved children’s story (playing through Sunday at San Diego Civic Theater) offers lots of scene changes done principally with technology and a quartet of adorable kids whom Barrie presumably used as prototypes to try his story on, but the production itself is light on the magic and wonder that “Peter Pan” is all about.

Maybe it’s all those adult concerns, like theater owner Charles Frohman (Tom Hewitt) demanding the script tomorrow, but telling Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) what he can’t do. Or maybe it’s the very adult preoccupation with death – about as potent a magic killer as can be imagined – that keeps it earthbound.

But let’s talk about the good stuff. Tighe is terrific as Barrie, finishing up his latest play when he meets widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her boisterous quartet of young sons in Kensington Garden one day.

It turns out she knows his work as well as he does, and as he describes the “new” story to her, she points out that he’s really writing a story he’s already done.

So he starts over, reaching for the magic this time, and with the kids’ help, “Peter Pan” is written.

But alas, “Neverland” gets so bogged down with adult situations and palaver that it never gets airborne, coming the closest in an affecting scene on the pirate ship where the buccaneers raise the rigging and sails before our eyes.

Still, Tighe is a formidable presence as Barrie, with a handsome face and a gorgeous tenor voice.

He just needs better lines and more memorable tunes to sing.

And it’s fitting and funny that Tom Hewitt, such a stodgy old American theater producer, also plays that great villain Captain Hook with such panache.

And I don’t want to forget that terrific, adorable shaggy dog.

There are lots of tech-heavy set pieces and some overactive choreography by Mia Michaels that will have the likes of dinner party guests dancing on the table.  But even the incipient Barrie-Sylvia romance (awkward because both were married at the time, though the show calls her a widow) is, well, adult stuff, not a bit magical.

Like Tighe, Dwyer’s Sylvia is a welcome presence – an intelligent woman with a lovely voice, who seems a perfect match for Barrie – if only.

“Finding Neverland” has a troubled history. The first iteration flopped at opening, and a second team was brought in to write a new book and songs, and fine theater director Diane Paulus was hired. That version was a commercial success, though critics didn’t like it much. This is that version.

This show needs songs with fewer words and more melody. These songs are by and large generic and unmemorable and the show ends with a death, for Pete’s sake. How’s that for a kids’s show?

But kudos to the kids, who at my performance were Ben Krieger as Peter,

Mitchell Wray as Jack, Jordan Cole as Michael and Colin Wheeler as George. I found them by and large difficult to understand, but they exuded enough energy to keep me interested. 

The details

“Finding Neverland” plays through April 9, 2017 at San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Avenue, Downtown. 

Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm Saturday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm. 

Tickets: (619) 570-1100 or broadwaysd.com