'Finding Neverland' fails to fly by playing it safe

Jeremy Daniel

Jeremy Daniel

The irony of Finding Neverland is that it's a musical about the power of imagination...inspired by a movie that was based on a play that was adapted from the life of the man who wrote one of the 20th century's most familiar stories. "Don't be afraid to take risks," the musical seems to say to viewers, "but up here, we're going to play it real safe."

Orpheum Theatre

After meeting an indifferent reception on Broadway in 2015, the musical launched a national tour last year and has now alighted at the Orpheum so that Twin Cities theatergoers can see what all the lack of fuss is about. The story is sturdy, and director Diane Paulus makes the most of James Graham's modestly witty script — but though Finding Neverland asks us to empathize with vulnerable characters, it somehow forgets to make them at all vulnerable. Even when they die, they do so with triumphant razzle-dazzle.

J.M. Barrie, for example, ostensibly a defeated man who's in a personal and professional rut, is played by Billy Harrigan Tighe with blithe charisma and matinee-idol good looks. There's no doubt when he meets the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Lael Van Keuren) that he's going to be God's gift to her and her four sons (all played by young actors rotating through the roles). Barrie's wife Mary (Minnesota native Kristine Reese, Tighe's IRL spouse) is a cruel caricature, giving the audience not the slightest impediment to empathizing with her husband when he starts to fall for his new lady friend.

Barrie doesn't only get to rescue the grieving family with the power of his imagination. He'll also be called upon to save an entire theatrical company from the financial ruin they're courting with Barrie's predictable plays and their own pretentious attitudes. John Davidson (yes, the host of That's Incredible!) plays Charles Frohman, the company's impresario who becomes the inspiration for Captain Hook.

Neverland paints the diverse stage performers as obnoxious divas (cue the inevitable "fairy" joke), then ropes them into the service of a blandly handsome straight white dude who makes them enact his bizarre fantasies so that he can bring a bit of cheer to some healthy and wealthy but occasionally melancholy children whose mother he just happens to have the hots for. Gee, how inspirational.

There are plenty of songs — or, rather, holes where the songs should be, left by composers Gary Barlow (known to Britpop fans as the lead singer of Take That) and Eliot Kennedy. The songs tend to stumble from key to key like a drunk in the dark, looking for melodic hooks that they rarely manage to find.

That makes the show's ballads eminently snooze-able, but the larger production numbers are redeemed by the indefatigable ensemble and the spry choreography of Mia Michaels (So You Think You Can Dance). The sets are relatively modest by Broadway standards, but the show has one big special effect that it leans on at the end of both acts: a cannonlike bass sound that shakes the rafters and loosens the bowels.

For all the high-concept hijinks, the production's most rapturously received star is the Llewelyn Davis family dog, played by "Sammy": a real pooch who wanders in at regular intervals. W.C. Fields famously advised against working with children or animals; in the case of this disappointing show, it's Sammy who could have used some career advice.