The latest show in the SHN season is Finding Neverland, the 2014 musical based on the 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee and subsequent 2004 film Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. It's the story of London playwright J.M. Barrie and how he came to be inspired to write the 1904 play that would make him famous, Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (not to be confused with the 1954 musical Peter Pan that was based on it and Barrie's subsequent 1911 novel, Peter and Wendy). And given how many cultural products Peter Pan has inspired including another recent Broadway hit, Peter and the Starcatcher and how many iterations of it there have been including a recent live television version, you'll be forgiven for wondering why the world needed another one. But fans of musical theater would be wrong to dismiss Finding Neverland out of hand because it's a show that features a number of excellent songs by the team of Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy (with Barlow being best known as the frontman for 90s British boy band, Take That), and some dazzling direction by professional dazzler Diane Paulus.
Taking on the role of Barrie in the national tour is Kevin Kern, who understudied the part on Broadway and occasionally went on in place of Glee star Matthew Morrison during the show's 17-month run between 2015 and 2016. He's a compelling stage presence with a terrific voice, and his on-stage fatherly rapport with the child performers playing the four boys who would become Barrie's adoptive sons, the Llewellan Davies Boys, is believable and infectious.
Also great is Christine Dwyer as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, who is the widow Barrie met, as the story goes, in Kensington Gardens one sunny afternoon when she was out with her four rambunctious boys, who were pretending to be pirates.
Finding Neverland bounces through a fictionalized version of the year in which Barrie meets Davies, shortly after the failure of one of his plays, and while he was under pressure from an American theater producer (Charles Frohman, played with great bravado by Tom Hewitt) to write a new hit. Frohman goads Barrie throughout, and becomes the booming, angry inspiration for Captain Hook in the process, while the Llewellan Davies boys remind Barrie of the freedom and joy of youth, and the transformative power of the imagination.
Speaking of that, the national tour has some tweaks from the Broadway production, which itself was tweaked from a couple earlier productions, including two new songs that open the show, one of which "My Imagination," sung by Barrie, is hokey, uninspired, and feels tacked on. The other, "Welcome to London," is a lively and fun ensemble number set in Kensington Gardens that opens the show on a brighter note, perhaps, than the song that opened the Broadway version, "All of London Is Here Tonight."
Highlights, song-wise, include the fugue-like "Circus Of Your Mind," which is enhanced by some cool direction by Paulus and choreography by Mia Michaels, and the very catchy "We're All Made of Stars," sung by the four boys in the second act.
The ensemble is highly energetic and delightful throughout, primarily portraying the acting company at Frohman's theater, and Paulus puts them to work in a number of ways, in several big numbers, doing her circus-y best to impress an audience something that dovetails well with the story about a production that involves faeries and people flying through the air.
All told, Finding Neverland is a somewhat sappy piece of commercial theater, but it can be forgiven for that and one moment toward the end of the play, which I won't ruin for you here, could have dipped into overly sentimental territory but is saved by a stunning visual gesture by Paulus. It's a show with broad appeal across all age groups, and the production values for this tour are remarkably high. If you haven't seen a new musical in a while, this won't be disappointing.
Finding Neverland plays through February 12 at the Orpheum Theater. Find tickets here.