There’s a gentle sadness embedded in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan character. A boy who never grows up? That seems like a pretty good deal, at first. But Peter’s condition also means he’ll never experience the full richness of life. He won’t really know romantic love, or gain the wisdom of experience. In a sense, he’ll never be fully human. Neverland is a nice place to visit, but are you sure you really want to live there?
This hint of pathos is largely absent from “Finding Neverland,” whose national tour makes a stop at Boston Opera House through Aug. 20. In telling the story of Barrie and the family who inspired his literary creation, its message seems to be that grown-ups would be better off if they’d just take up childish things again. With the exception of a suggestion of romance that seems to owe its presence more to the conventions of musical theater than to the necessities of this story, the adult world is presented flatly as an unpleasant place which can only be fixed with irreverence. But since this brightly colored, broad-strokes musical seems aimed directly at its youngest audience members, maybe that tone is just right.
Based on a movie that was itself based on a book, the musical is now in its fourth incarnation, following variously conceived productions in England, at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, and on Broadway. The first version was scrapped, and each of the others has seen significant makeovers. So is the fourth time a charm?
Though there’s the lingering sense of a thematic poetry that’s still not quite captured, this sturdily built production is well-devised to please all-ages audiences on the commercial touring circuit. Moreover, it offers many chuckles, several winningly realized set pieces, and a gorgeously envisioned sense of whimsy. Plus a real, live dog. If you have a heart, it will at one point or another be warmed, right on cue.
Diane Paulus, the Tony Award-winning artistic director at ART, directs a busy and talented ensemble here with a conspicuous assist from Mia Michaels’s choreography, which is rarely flashy but creates a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts effect. James Graham’s clever book is filled with successful one-liners and gauzy aphorisms extolling the virtues of creativity. The score, by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, is stocked with hummable melodies (“Believe” and “Play” are standouts) even if too many of the musical arrangements default to the mode of indistinct pop ballad.
Billy Harrigan Tighe (veteran of Paulus’s acclaimed “Pippin” revival) and Christine Dwyer (Elphaba in “Wicked”) lead the cast as Barrie — presented as a successful London playwright suffering a creative crisis — and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, a recently widowed mom whose boys inspire the writer’s imagination. Their shared forays into the world of make-believe inspire Barrie to tap into a childlike enthusiasm that, we’re told, he had lost. But we never saw him behave otherwise. He just seems like a determinedly silly guy, and ends the show not far from where he started.
In the dual role of Barrie’s producer Charles Frohman and Captain Hook, a likable John Davidson gets the best lines. Karen Murphy is suitably prim and sour as Sylvia’s ever-skeptical mother. The four Llewelyn Davies children were played on opening night by Connor Jameson Casey, Colin Wheeler, Turner Birthisel, and Tyler Patrick Hennessy. They each provide admirable performances, and Birthisel in particular gets a chance to stand out with his assured vocals on the all-kid number “We’re All Made of Stars.”
Paulus has an excellent eye for stage pictures, and crams this production with appealing ones. Jon Driscoll’s projection design goes far to fill out the relatively sparse scenic design by Scott Pask, which is composed largely of moving panels, park benches, and tables in order to leave plenty of room for the ensemble’s creative movement.
“Finding Neverland” finds some delightfully small moments, such as the everyday inspirations for the fairy Tinker Bell and Captain Hook’s crooked appendage, which I won’t spoil here. Even its biggest gestures wring wonder from simple stage effects, particularly a surprisingly haunting climactic sequence.
I found the show most successful in its later scenes, when the glib tone of the first act is expanded by a sudden dose of naturalism that gives all the whimsy something richer to play off of. Then we finally get a glimpse of Tighe’s Barrie as a well-rounded, playful man — not merely an adult at play.
Music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. Book by James Graham. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreography by Mia Michaels. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Boston Opera House, through Aug. 20. Tickets start at $44, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com