"Finding Neverland" opens at The Hippodrome on Tuesday, June 27 and runs through Sunday, July 2. (Courtesy video)
No less an expert on youth and adventure than Mark Twain loved J. M. Barrie's play "Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up," declaring it to be "a great and refining and uplifting benefaction to this sordid and money-mad age."
That assessment was made a century ago, but the sordid, money-mad part doesn't seem at all dated. And although the original 1904 stage work by the Scottish playwright and novelist isn't encountered too often now, the indelible figure of Peter Pan, in one form or another, seems to pop up every few years, promising a welcome escape from the unsavory parts of the world around us.
The latest example is the musical "Finding Neverland," which wings its way this week to Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre as part of a tour that started shortly after the show closed on Broadway last summer.
"'Finding Neverland' is all about imagination and creativity," says veteran actor and TV game show host John Davidson, who will make his debut in the production in Baltimore. "The big picture is how we create things, how you find the muse that helps you. And the big message is to be a child, to never grow up. Find the child within and free it."
Like the movie of the same name, "Finding Neverland" is based on Allan Knee's 1998 play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan." It has a book by James Graham, music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy.
The musical offers a partly biographical, partly fanciful scenario of Barrie overcoming a spell of writer's block to craft a new play after meeting and befriending four young brothers in a London park. The familiar characters of Peter, Wendy, Captain Hook and Tinkerbell appear as they take form in Barrie's imagination.
Those characters are longtime favorites of Billy Harrigan Tighe, who heads the touring cast as Barrie.
"I am definitely a fan of 'Peter Pan,' and I would hope any boy would be attracted to the story, with its pirates and sword-fighting," says Tighe, 31, who has appeared in several Broadway productions and national tours, among them "The Book of Mormon" and "Wicked."
As a 5-year-old, the Georgia native found an entry into Barrie's world through a riff on the original material in the 1991 Steven Spielberg film "Hook," about a disgruntled middle-aged lawyer discovering that he's actually Peter Pan and has to fight Captain Hook all over again.
"I spent countless summer hours re-creating scenes from the movie in the neighborhood pool," Tighe says. "As a kid, you're all about the constant search for adventure. As an adult, you realize how much your life is controlled by the clock. You're not able to embrace your youth, your child at heart. J. M. Barrie's lesson in 'Finding Neverland' is that it's never too late to re-find your creative voice."
Davidson exemplifies that spirit. At 75, he jumped into rehearsals for "Finding Neverland" a few weeks before the Baltimore stop to learn the dual role of American theatrical producer Charles Frohman, who produced the London and New York premieres of Barrie's play, and Captain Hook.
Like Tighe, Davidson had a memorable early encounter with the world of Peter Pan.
"My mother was the theatrical one in the family," the Pittsburgh-born Davidson says. "After we moved to White Plains, New York, she took me to my first musical on Broadway. It was the mid-'50s. We sat in the front row of the mezzanine — I still remember the view — and saw Mary Martin in 'Peter Pan.' I loved the theatricality of it."
Davidson, whose lengthy credits include a finely nuanced portrayal of the Wizard in the national tour of "Wicked" that played the Hippodrome in 2015, was a fan of the Broadway production of "Finding Neverland."
That production featured "Glee" star Matthew Morrison as Barrie and Kelsey Grammer as Frohman/Hook, directed by Diane Paulus, who also guided the current Broadway musical "Waitress" and the recent revival of "Pippin."
Davidson decided to audition for Grammer's role when the tour cast was being assembled last fall.
"But they hired another guy," he says. "Then Diane Paulus called me a month ago — well, her people called me — and I now have a 45-week contract 'til next May, including three weeks when the show will be in Japan. I'm as dumbfounded as you are. And I'm very grateful."
Davidson relishes both halves of his "Finding Neverland" assignment.
"I feel like this is the perfect for me. Charles Frohman is a great character to play — he was the David Merrick of the American theater scene 120 years ago," Davidson says (Merrick produced the original "Hello, Dolly" and many other Broadway shows). "And I'm the only one in the cast who gets to speak with an American accent."
The actor does switch voices, though, as Captain Hook.
"I use something a little Cyril Ritchard-esque," Davidson says, referring to the vivid Australian-born actor who starred as Hook opposite Mary Martin in the 1954 "Peter Pan" musical and subsequent TV version. "That's a lot of fun."
In "Finding Neverland," the pirate character has advice for his creator.
"As Captain Hook, I say to J. M. Barrie, 'I am your darker side. Don't hide all the dark parts of yourself,'" Davidson says. "That's a universal message about creativity."
There was a darker side to Barrie's life. He carried emotional weight from his childhood, when an older brother died in an accident, and it seems as if misfortune followed him.
Both parents ofthe boys Barrie first met in that parkdied young (he became their guardian), and several of those boys met untimely ends as well — one in a World War I battle, another by what may have been a suicidal drowning, one definitely from suicide (he threw himself under a train).
"Fortunately or unfortunately, we do sidestep all of that," Tighe says. "I wish there was another show that would explore that. It is really interesting."
Barrie's fixation on boys and prolonging boyhood has raised questions. While some of his biographers dismiss the possibility of pedophilia, positing that Barrie was asexual, others sound less sure.
"The show certainly steers away from all that," Tighe says. "Diane [Paulus] made it very clear that we have to be careful. So when Peter embraces J.M. Barrie, you know it's because he sees him as a father."
The wholesome "Finding Neverland" had a respectable 17-month run on Broadway. Reviews were mixed, as they have been during the tour.
"I think what leaves us vulnerable [to criticism] is that our show is family-friendly and can be openly sappy at times," Tighe says. "But we keep our focus on telling the story as best we can. And audience reactions have been stellar."