Men who never grow up, who prefer their own tailor-made reality to the complex world around them, can cause lots of problems and anxieties for themselves and others. J.M. Barrie was such a fellow, but the Scottish writer offered significant compensation for his personal peculiarities in the form of a play that introduced the world to the endearing character of Peter Pan.
How Barrie came to create that age- and gravity-defying boy — not to mention the villainous pirate Captain Hook, the helpful fairy Tinker Bell and all the rest — makes a great story in itself.
That story generated a fanciful, mostly effective movie called "Finding Neverland" in 2004 and, a couple years ago, a fanciful, mostly disappointing musical of the same name.
The stage version, in residence at the Hippodrome Theatre, looks handsome (Scott Pask designed it) and is efficiently directed by Diane Paulus. The national touring cast boasts impressive talent, from the youngest on up to the newest member of the team, septuagenarian John Davidson, in a dual role that lets him devour every piece of scenery worth chewing.
All that "Finding Neverland" lacks is a solid script and a distinctive score.
Long and feeling longer, the musical rarely takes flight. There are wonderful moments, to be sure, some genuinely heartwarming or funny or surprising (a terrific bit of stagecraft pops up near the end). Too often, though, James Graham's book feels padded or belabored.
And, aside from a couple of welcome exceptions, we get banal, '80s-ish pop/rock songs by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, most of them aggressively delivered. How such a promising project ended up with so little musical charm in it is beyond me.
The plot (more or less close to the facts) concerns how Barrie happened upon the lively children of the not-entirely-healthy Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in a London park one day, struck up a friendship, and gradually got his inspiration for Neverland and its denizens.
But for all the show's eventfulness — including scenes of the backstage world as "Peter Pan" is prepared for the London stage in 1904 — there isn't room for much insight into Barrie or Sylvia, or even the boys, for that matter. More time is spent on the forgettable songs and manic choreography that makes the big production numbers numbing after a while.
At least a regular dose of decent one-liners, many happily anachronistic, help spice things up. (The biggest laugh line, though, about "fairies" in the theater, is cheap.)
In the end, I discovered it's possible to curb objections and expectations as "Finding Neverland" unfolds, since the performers are so darn likable. They almost make you believe this is a major musical.
Billy Harrigan Tighe's nuanced portrayal of Barrie conveys his unusual mix of maturity and nonconformism. The actor uses his warm singing voice to keen effect, especially when phrasing gently.
Christine Dwyer makes an appealing Sylvia and, except when required to produce Celine Dion-level wailing, handles the vocals comfortably. As Sylvia's suspicious, slowly softened mother, Karen Murphy does winning work.
The polished supporting cast includes especially vibrant efforts from Dwelvan David, Matt Wolpe and Connor McRory.
The ever-dimpled Davidson plays the tense theater producer Charles Frohman as well as the devilish Hook, who springs from Barrie's imagination at a key moment. Davidson knows just how much to ham up a part, and when to rein it in. He's very funny — how perfectly he judges a line about ordering a scotch — and he sings robustly, too.
Several actors rotate in the roles of the four Llewelyn-Davies children. The ones on opening night couldn't have been more assured and disarming, especially in Act 2, when the boys put on their own play for their mother and Barrie.
The delectable sense of adventure and fun and simplicity in that scene provides a glimpse of what all of "Finding Neverland" might have been.
If you go
"Finding Neverland" runs through Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $42 to $188.25. Call 800-982-2787, or go to ticketmaster.com.