CAMBRIDGE — Don’t come to “Finding Neverland” expecting to see Peter Pan and Wendy flying through the air. Director Diane Paulus and the other creators of the new musical are after a more earthbound kind of magic.
Not that the headed-for-Broadway show, at the American Repertory Theater through Sept. 28, lacks for the bravura stagecraft that’s a staple of Paulus’s reign as ART artistic director. But the big, family-friendly show’s point is the way a childlike imagination can act as a balm for real-world pain.
Set in London in 1904, “Finding Neverland” tells the story of how blocked playwright and unhappy husband J.M. Barrie gets his groove back with the help of the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four sons. Barrie reconnects with his inner child long enough to write “Peter Pan,” then — spoiler alert — mans up when tragedy strikes the family a second time.
As Barrie and Sylvia, Jeremy Jordan (“Newsies,” TV’s “Smash”) and Laura Michelle Kelly sung terrifically and with heart in Wednesday’s opening night performance. Kelly’s big first-act solo number, “All That Matters,” and their second-act duet, “What You Mean to Me,” brought a roar of approval from the house.
Except for that duet, though, Barrie and Sylvia’s romance takes a back seat to care of the four boys. Young Peter Davies (Aidan Gemme) in particular is still grieving his father, and Barrie must coax the serious young lad to learn to be a child again. Get your hankies ready for their second-act duet, “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” after both have learned the hard truth about Sylvia’s health.
Jordan has the more difficult part. A writer’s process is inward, and Barrie stands around looking on and jotting in his notebook perhaps once or twice too often in the first act. The show is better when he’s in motion, as in the dark “Circus of Your Mind” or the rowdy first-act closer, “Stronger.” Those pirates show up just in time.
The songs themselves, by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, serve the characters without being particularly distinctive or memorable. The one exception is “Believe,” which has earworm potential although (or perhaps, because) it’s relatively straightforward.
“Finding Neverland” is also a backstage romp, as Barrie and blustery producer Charles Frohman (Michael McGrath, wry and funny) must convince a rebellious troupe of thespians (Josh Lamon and Paul Slade Smith are standouts) to tackle his strange tale of fairies and pirates and — ugh — children.
Paulus says in a program note that she finds inspiration in Barrie’s theatrical risk-taking. The show’s portrayal of the comically pretentious actors could be read as a commentary on those who question the ART’s role as an incubator for Broadway shows. They aren’t happy until they get with the (playful) program, hint, hint.
“Finding Neverland” does fly into the Loeb with some Hollywood baggage. Producer Harvey Weinstein was in the house at Wednesday night’s opening, just hours after his spokesman confirmed the show will hit Broadway in March. He’s the driving force behind it, having produced the “Finding Neverland” movie, with Johnny Depp as Barrie, and an earlier stage production in England that was discarded.
McGrath has acknowledged that there’s a bit of Weinstein in the show’s Frohman. The line “Because I’m the producer, and you have to do everything I say!” got a big laugh from the savvy opening-night audience.
When “Finding Neverland” tries to state its themes out loud, in song or dialogue, it sometimes settles for upbeat platitudes about living in the moment and letting love lead the way, cliches that could nestle comfortably into any Disney musical. Jordan and Kelly’s performances are good enough that the show could have gone deeper. By many accounts, the real-life relationship between Barrie and the family was more complicated than it is portrayed here.
But this is a fun and touching show, gorgeous to look at and listen to, and the 2½ hours mostly fly by. How you feel about “Finding Neverland” will depend on whether you believe that’s enough.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified a song that Laura Michelle Kelly sang in the first act.