(An earlier version of this story said that John Davidson appeared in the opening-night performance. Matthew Quinn played the roles of Charles Frogman and Capt. Hook, not Davidson.)
There’s plenty of magic and wonder alongside tears and heartbreak in “Finding Neverland.” The touring Broadway production, now running at Wharton Center, is not short and certainly not for cynics, but it is a fun adaptation of a classic story. Buoyed by a superb cast, it sails beyond some questionable songs and into the hearts of the audience.
Based on the 2004 film of the same name, “Finding Neverland” is the story of how Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie came to write “Peter Pan.” Set in early 20th century England, Barrie struggles to write an original work distinct from his other more formulaic plays. After meeting four imaginative young brothers, and their widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, Barrie is inspired to write a new play to charm London theatergoers and audiences beyond.
Billy Harrigan Tighe plays Barrie with the perfect balance of playfulness and charm. He displays a genuine affection for Davies (Lael Van Keuren) and her children without giving off predatory vibes. Both Tighe and Van Keuren share impeccable voices that nail the high notes with room to spare. The Llewelyn Davies children – Connor Jameson Casey as Peter, Colin Wheeler as George, Wyatt Cirbus as Jack and Tyler Patrick Hennessy as Michael – are polished professionals themselves. The children may change roles each night, but their performances feel unique.
While the entire cast is strong, two actors stood out on opening night. One was Matthew Quinn, subbing for that performance for television veteran John Davidson as American theater producer Charles Frohman and later the Captain James Hook inside Barrie’s mind. Quinn was grounded and pragmatic as Frohman, but his Captain Hook steals the show at the end of Act 1. In the songs “Hook” and “Stronger,” Quinn’s melodic voice and charismatic bravado make you wish the entire second act was devoted to this character alone. Karen Murphy plays Mrs. Du Maurier, Llewelyn Davies’ disapproving mother. Murphy helps anchor her scenes, serving as the reminder that self-expression is not encouraged in Edwardian England.
Scott Pask’s scenic design beautifully blends the real world and the fantastic, transitioning from the two-dimensional pastel backdrops of London to the three-dimensional ship rigging that enters at the end of Act 1. Along with lighting design by Kenneth Posner, the projections and sets seamlessly blend the real and dream world that become Barrie’s play. Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costume designs are stately and period appropriate, but also allow the actors plenty of room to move around to Mia Michaels choreography.
The music and lyrics by, Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, are poppy and pleasant although not particularly memorable. Songs like “Circus of Your Mind” and “Stronger” stand out in Act 1, but the Act 2 power ballads like “What You Mean to Me” somehow slow down the show instead of energizing it.
Still, as a celebration of the power of play and the imagination, “Finding Neverland” reminds the audience that inspiration is all around us. If the show drags in places, the opening night audience didn’t seem to notice. Just sprinkle on some fairy dust and enjoy.
“Finding Neverland” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 13-Thursday, Dec. 14; 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 17 Tickets start at $43/$29 students Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com