Finding Neverland
Through Sunday, May 28
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham

The story of Peter Pan has never wavered in the popular imagination. That’s partly because its case for the necessity of imagination rings true universally and eternally, and partly because its premise was built to prove itself with time. Playwright and author J.M. Barrie dreamed of a gamine boy who would never grow up, but we’ve actually watched him not growing up for 113 years and counting—first onstage, and then, at regular intervals, in notable books, movies, cartoons, and musicals.

Given this relentless exposure, it’s surprising that it took until 1998 for someone (playwright Allan Knee, in The Man Who Was Peter Pan) to dramatize the fascinating—and, the deeper you look, heartbreaking—story behind Barrie’s wishful roman à clef. (Please refrain from visiting his Wikipedia page if you’re having a good morning and would like to keep it that way.) You’re more likely familiar with the Oscar-nominated 2004 film adaptation, starring Johnny Depp; both works are now the source of this 2012 musical. (Can’t wait for the ballet, the theme-park ride, and Finding Neverland: The Room Escape Game.)

After cooking across the pond for a few years, Finding Neverland transferred to Broadway in 2015, where it ran for seventeen months. It sands the rough edges of Barrie’s personal idiosyncrasies and tragedies even smoother than the film does, transforming them into digestible, tidily cathartic heartaches—which is of course just right for a musical. For a story filled with illness, death, and orphans, director Diane Paulus’s national touring version is a funny, bouncy, flouncy crowd-pleaser. The songs are sturdy, sometimes inspired, and, at DPAC on opening night, they were consistently (if not flawlessly) well sung. But this is a show that really thrives on stagecraft, acting, and saucy, slapstick choreography.

Like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland forty years before it, Barrie’s Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was the product of a man’s close relationship with someone else’s children. In London at the turn of the twentieth century, Barrie (a squeaky clean and winning Billy Harrigan Tighe), under pressure from his venal producer (a blustery Rory Donovan) to produce another West End hit, instead whiles away his days playing with the four sons of the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (a pert, composed Christine Dwyer). Their make-believe games turn Kensington Park into Neverland, a kind of notional pirate-ridden fantasyland for orphans.

The first half of the musical dramatizes how Barrie spun his life into the Peter Pan story; the second covers the play’s initial casting, rehearsal, and debut. Except for those of Barrie and Davies, all the roles are played in high caricature, ridiculous accents bitten off with relish. This is a musical where no butler simply exits stage left when he can swan off, swaybacked and on tippy-toe, triggering aural hallucinations of cartoon xylophones. The script flits lightly between ingenuous whimsy and mildly barbed gags, pitched over kids’ heads to their parents. “Children are like soufflés: pointless until they’re raised”—this is the sort of badinage on display.

Any musical with a play inside it will inevitably be theater about theater, to some extent, so the script is also liberally peppered with meta jokes. “Do you know any fairies?” someone asks one of Barrie’s actors. “My good lad, I work in the theater,” he replies, pausing to cast a significant glance at the audience, where the adults roar with laughter as the kids look around trying to figure out why.

Some of the songs flirt with Sondheim-like cleverness and complexity, such as “The Dinner Party,” which runs through a showstopper of a dinner-party scene, and the diabolical “Circus of Your Mind,” which conjures shades of Sweeney Todd. But most of the book leans toward Disney-worthy harmonic clarity and lyrical simplicity, a mode well suited to the translucent but secretly soulful voice of Tighe, whose plentiful high notes hover like a cool mist, and to the quartet of scene-stealing ragamuffins who play the Davies boys.

Still, the comedy of Edwardian manners and mores would wear thin if not for the play within the musical, which erodes the boundary between itself and reality, letting Tinkerbell and Captain Hook and crocodiles run rampant through minimal but striking set elements immersed in digitally painted backdrops. Hilarious and exciting episodes briskly punctuated with sad ones propel us through a second half that drags here and there toward some unforgettably beautiful stagecraft at the end, by which time adults and children alike have been reduced to one homogenous, quivering mass of satiated wonder.

We go to see some kinds of art to learn, to be challenged, or to change our minds. But we go to musicals to vividly remember what we already know—to re-feel and verify clichés. In Finding Neverland, the one about the transformative, indispensable power of fantasy holds up wonderfully.