REVIEW: Onstage magic propels imaginative telling of Peter Pan backstory in “Finding Neverland”

Courtesy photo

Growing up isn’t fun. Adult life has a way of continuously complicating itself, with the pressures of finances and health and the expectations of propriety and constant self-advancement.

Peter Pan has always provided a sense of escapism, real and imagined, from those ideas. And it is imagination that fuels the new Broadway Series production at the Walton Arts Center, “Finding Neverland.” The musical, based on the semi-autobiographic play about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, runs through Saturday.

What: “Finding Neverland”
When: Through Dec. 23
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Cost: $44-$93
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or

The escapism element certainly fuels our appetite for Peter Pan tales, as “Finding Neverland” is one of many Pan-inspired stage shows taking flight. Fayetteville somewhat recently saw another when TheatreSquared staged “Peter and the Starcatcher” in 2015. While that show was here, “Finding Neverland” was enjoying a successful Broadway run. The production closed in 2016 and went on the national tour that arrived in Fayetteville for Tuesday’s debut.

“Finding Neverland” is far more grounded in reality, focusing on how the Scottish novelist and playwright found inspiration for the characters he created for the various Peter Pan tales. “Finding Neverland” finds its urgency in the idea that Barrie must write a hit for a struggling theater in London’s West End. The idea simply won’t come.

When he meets the four Davies boys in London’s Kensington Park, he literally tears up his script, both metaphorically and physically. He makes friends with the boys, and soon their mother Sylvia as well. The young boys’ fanciful games with imaginary pirates and colorful characters became the basis for Barrie’s new work. Meanwhile, those closest to him – his wife, those at the theater, etc… – are convinced the newly liberated and playful Barrie has lost his dang mind.

There are plenty of liberties taken with the telling of this tale, from the timeline of events to the number of Davies children to the nature of the relationship between Sylvia Davies and J.M. Barrie.

But facts have little place in a story about creating a story about a boy who doesn’t grow up. Only magic does, and this production has certainly captured some, right down to the fairy dust that swirls like a tornado near the musical’s conclusion. I could list at least five “how did they do that?!?” moments of stagecraft, but I’ll spare them in case you want to be wowed, too. Come for the warning about growing up too fast, and stay for the brilliant aesthetics, imaginative stage work and innovative choreography. A dance scene at a dinner party that helps close out the first act are among the highlights of “Finding Neverland.”

The staging and execution of this show is flawless. That starts with the cast. Billy Harrigan Tighe, our J.M. Barrie, has appeared on Broadways in “Book of Mormon” and “Pippin” and toured with several national productions. His talent is clear. Having a great lead is one thing, but “Finding Neverland” manages to pull off a very difficult task of finding a group of young actors to portray the Davies boys. In some scripts, child actors are but window dressing. But “Finding Neverland” requires line-intensive, active, focused performances from the four young men on the stage. It got just that Tuesday night. Even the real-life dog Sammy, who portrays J.M. Barrie’s dog Porthos, is well-trained. I could tell you that the dog has a very specific joke that it must act out, and you might not believe me, but you’d be wrong.

Suspending belief is an integral part of live theater experiences, and of the Peter Pan legacy, which makes them a compelling match. This particular production isn’t one that will be remembered for its songs, except for perhaps the song “Play,” during which the Davies boys show Barrie the play they’ve been creating. And that song is mostly memorable for its spot-on performances by its actors. Instead, “Finding Neverland” would like you to stop growing up for a few hours, and stop worrying about adulthood.

Two hours of not worrying about life is the kind of magic I believe in, and the kind you should, too.