During the second act of Finding Neverland, the latest Broadway in Houston offering at the Hobby Center, a boy named Peter introduces a backyard play he wrote for his mentor J.M. Barrie, telling him that it's not supposed to be taken seriously, but "It’s really just a bit of silliness.”
Finding Neverland the musical, with book by James Graham and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, also contains quite a bit of silliness, but its broad comic antics do harbor a serious but hopeful message about the power of imagination to help us survive loss.
The show is very loosely (think seven sizes too big loose) based on the true story of how J.M. Barrie was inspired to write Peter Pan, and so at the core of Finding Neverland lies the relationship between Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) and a young family he meets in the park, a recently widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her four young sons. Three of the boys are playing pirates while the dour Peter (Ben Krieger) refuses to let imagination and play distract him from the real world, a world filled with dying parents.
Playwright Barrie is in desperate need of a new theatrical hit, but really he needs to find the fun in writing again, while the boys could use a father figure, especially one who allows them to behave as kids instead of short grown-ups, as their societal matron grandmother (an intentionally over-the-top in haughtiness, Karen Murphy) would have them behave.
And so while Barrie teaches Peter to find hope in life again, Peter and his brothers help Barrie rediscover Neverland, the magical land he invented as a boy when he also faced tragedy.
Those relationships represent pretty much the serious bit of the plot. The play spends the rest of the two-and-a-half-hour run time on flights into the silly stratosphere, including meta commentary on theater production, overacting actors, snooty society dinners and almost every other song themed around the power of imagination.
When Captain Hook (a delightful Matthew Quinn) and his gang of singing pirates finally show up representing Barrie’s inner dark side, these vaguely homoerotic psychological shadows mostly just tell him to man up and demand more artistic freedom from his producer, Charles Frohman (Matthew Quinn again and still fun).
The show even features one moment near the end when Mr. Henshaw (Dwelvan David), a much-put-upon Shakespearean actor, must don a giant dog suit. David, as Henshaw, has managed to steal almost every previous scene he’s been in but costumed as the dog in Peter Pan gets that scene napped literally right from under him by Neverland’s dog character Porthos (played by a very real and adorable canine named Sammy), David’s only real rival in theatrical scene thievery.
The show almost collapses onto itself in a meta singularity of silliness at that point, but like many other moments in Finding Neverland manages to cut the frivolity with moments of poignancy, usually involving death.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of the Peter Pan story with its weird Freudian mommy and daddy issues embedded within the play, along with its idealizing of preadolescent selfishness. I’ve also hated the story’s hidden message for little girls that if you’re going on an adventure to a magical land be prepared to spend the majority of your time cooking, sewing and mothering dirty, needy little boys or murderous pirates (same difference).
Yet, I found myself surprisingly won over by director Diane Paulus’s rendering of Neverland.
Barrie could have easily become the annoying man-child Peter can be in certain Pan productions, but Tighe endows the Barrie the character, and his constant insistence that imagination can lessen any tragedy, with a great amount of mitigating charm. Sylvia is a mother just too perfect and ideal, yet Dwyer manages to humanize her and therefore gives her tragedy some much needed emotional heft.
The production is also just pretty to watch thanks to the creative crew, especially the scenic, costume and projection designers Scott Pask, Suttirat Anne Larfarb and Jon Driscoll, respectively.
I wouldn’t recommend heading off to Neverland looking for secret treasure troves of rich and dark psychological drama that many fairytales, including Peter Pan, hold, but for a night of very light and fanciful theatrical flights, go ahead and clap your hands together for silly faeries and shaggy dogs. You can still find them in Neverland.
Finding Neverland runs through April 30 at the Hobby Center.