‘Finding Neverland’ is crowd pleaser

by MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

When it comes to the arts—performing, musical, or visual—there is a time for masterpieces.

And there is a time for very good.

While a masterpiece might fill your soul or push boundaries, very good will bring a smile to your face, bring a tear to your eye, and take you to another place.

This isn’t meant as an insult, but an observation, the musical “Finding Neverland,” which was performed at The Bushnell on Aug. 1 and continues through Aug. 6, is not a masterpiece.

That said, it’s very very good.

The show, which was based on an Oscar-nominated film, which in turm was based on a book, tells the story of how author J.M. Barrie came to write the classic stage play, “Peter Pan.”

The show reminds the audience of the importance of imagination and playing—even as an adult. The show teaches us that we all must forget the “boy who never grew up” and the child we once were.

The message is a simple one and the show conveys it with a sense of joy and verve.

There are some adult tragedies along the way in this tale of a children’s story—but this only helps the emphasize the point that we all must remember the happiness we felt as children lest we get mired in the blues of adulthood.

The music of “Finding Neverland” is well-crafted. It springs more out of a pop tradition than a Broadway tradition or something as grand as an Andrew Lloyd Webber creation. My first thought, without reading the program notes, was that the music wouldn’t have been out of place on a One Direction album.

It turns out, my instincts were on the right track. Gary Barlow, who wrote the music and lyrics with Eliot Kennedy, was once one of the leaders of Take That, a British boy band that sold oodles of records in the U.K. They were the English equivalent of American groups the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync at the time… and they were the One Direction of their day.

Given the fine pop stylings of the musical, the performers on stage were well-cast.

Billy Harrigan Tighe had the perfect pop ready voice for his role as J.M. Barrie. He was charming in a boyish, gangly way, which seemed befitting in a role as playwright trying to get in touch with his inner child– his “Peter Pan.” At times, Tighe reminded me of comedian Dick Van Dyke – and as I watched him I kept having visions of two cinematic creations that were spiritual brethren of “Finding Neverland”—“Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

Christine Dwyer as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies—the widow with four sons who slowly becomes Barries’ romantic interest– also was a delight. She performed the role in a way that had you believe that she was an apropos inspiration for a playwright, a perfect foil to prod J.M. Barrie from his more staid romantic dramas and onto something more left of center for the times.

John Davidson had the proper balance of crustiness and heart of gold as theater producer Charles Frohman and a good dash of bravado and swashbuckling as Barrie’s inner Captain Hook.

The young actors who performed as the Davies children also were good fun and they exhibited a great deal of panache, confidence, and talent on stage. Their vocal ensemble work made me think they have a future as a boy band themselves. (I wish I could give you the names of the performers but the program gives no indication of who performed on Thursday night. Although there are photographs of the actors in the program, it’s difficult to connect a face in the book with the face on stage.)

The direction by Diane Paulus was breezy and light-handed. The choreography by Mia Michaels was fun when it needed to be and had the right amount of drama when necessary, such as during “Circus of the Mind.”

It is notable to mention that there was a good mix of children and adults in the audience. Just as the character of Barrie mentions that “Peter Pan” would have something for the children but the adults as well, “Finding Neverland” is a great offering for the whole family.

To use a cinematic comparison, “Finding Neverland” is a show that is more “Beaches”—a fan favorite that people watch again and again—then a “Schindler’s List” or “Godfather” that stakes out new ground in the artform.

It’s a very good stage show.

And sometimes very good is great for a night out.

I give “Finding Neverland” on Aug. 8 at The Bushnell Theater in Hartford 3 out of 4 stars.

The show continues through Sunday at the theater, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

For tickets, go to www.bushnell.org

‘Finding Neverland’ continues at The Bushnell through Sunday.