To put my crush on Finding Neverland into quick perspective, I completely shared the New York Times critic’s raving enthusiasm for the darkly dysfunctional August: Osage County and I’m fanatic about Les Miserables.
And now I’m madly in love with the Neverland musical which the NYT declared a sticky mess of ersatz sentimentality. So, if you’re too grown up to clap when that’s all it takes to save Tinkerbell, stay away from the Orpheum Theatre and find solace in your cynicism.
Cynics scorn our Pavlovian response to that fairy light darting wildly but those of us who love the story of Peter Pan can barely contain our joy to discover again that we have somehow succeeded in not growing up.
But, while the J.M. Barrie story of four fatherless boys who inspired the creation of Peter Pan does draw heavily on nostalgia, that’s not mainly what makes it such a remarkable experience.
Director Diane Paulus makes it a marvel of light-hearted staging that manifests itself especially in the ensemble performances of minor players who never make an exit or entrance without flair or flourish.
Her style is amazing (a word I swore off of years ago) in such ordinary settings as a dinner party where we’re treated to see it from the viewpoint of Barrie’s imagination which she shares with young Peter. And it comes into full flower with the rouser that thunderously ends Act One after Captain Hook (a vigorous 75-year-old John Davidson) pep-talks Barrie into taking charge of his life and writing his own story.
Fully crediting story and direction doesn’t mean there’s not a great cast led by Davidson as both Hook and producer Charles Frohman, Billy Harrigan Tighe as playwright Barrie and Christine Dwyer as the mother of the four rambunctious boys.
All three offer strong voices and their songs are often integrated into scenes exploding with antic choreography, especially when exploring “My Imagination” with Barrie or seeing a reluctant cast won over by Frohman’s reminder:
“What do we call what you do on stage? It’s a play,” and soon they’re playing through the likes of nursery rhymes ending with “all fall down.”
So we follow the path that begins with Barrie watching the four boys play cowboys and pirates to convincing seasoned thespians to play his characters on stage. When Dwelvan David, a large pompous actor who calls everyone “Darling,” is asked if he believes in fairies, he draws a laugh by sniffing, “I am a man of the theater.”
Soon he accepts the indignity of playing the dog and even shares another sort of sniffing with the real dog, a big furry scene-stealer.
If anyone is still determined to grumble about the sentimentality, I’ll put on my curmudgeon cap and admit to some qualms about the closing scene. Some may recall a Disney film, “The Incredible Journey,” about some wayward pets who miraculously find their way home. As an adult reviewing the film, I cried at the hokey ending and cursed old Walt for my vulnerability to his machinations.
Well, I pretty much melted when Neverland winds up with the boys’ dying mother flying through that famous window arm in arm with Peter Pan. So, damn you Diane Paulus, you got me with a cheap shot, but it felt good.
And Joan Squires and her friends at Omaha Performing Arts couldn’t have found a better way to start their 2017-2018 Broadway season.
Finding Neverland runs through Oct. 15, Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St., 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday; 1:30 p.m. & 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets-$35-$95 at ticketomaha.com