When I was seven years old, my parents took me to see Peter Pan on Broadway. I remember gasping as green tights clad gymnast Cathy Rigby flew over my head. Being the obnoxious seven year old that I was, I missed no opportunity to point upward and shout “I can see the wires!” In Tony Award winner Diane Paulus’ production of Finding Neverland, however, the wires are there for all to see: and that’s exactly how they want it.
With fantastical whimsy and vigor, Finding Neverland brings the story of J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, to ecstatic life in classic Broadway fashion. We meet Barrie in a state of creative stagnation as he struggles to wow audiences with his next big play. The spell of writer’s block is broken when he stumbles across the beautiful, young widow Silvia Davies, and her four rowdy boys, including Peter, a brooding young lad who used to love to goof off, but has retreated into himself since the death of the children’s father. As it turns out, this family without a dad and the eternal man child are just what each other needs. Not only that, but their unexpected bond will spark the birth of a wondrous alternative universe that will excite the dreams of children around the world for generations known as Neverland. Before long, this imaginary world where anything is possible leaks into real life. Soon stuffy dinner parties turn into intrepid pirate voyages, Barrie and the boys erupting into epic sword fights around ornately decorated table dressings. Right before our eyes, the play’s characters transform one by one into their Neverland alter egos – unrestrained versions of their otherwise buttoned-up selves. The transformation of Barrie’s miserly producer, played brilliantly by Connor McGiffin, into the dastardly Captain Hook, was perfectly á propos.
With a rich cast of highly talented triple threats, including Jeff Sullivan as Barrie and Ruby Gibbs as Silvia Davies, as well as four exceptional child actors, Finding Neverland hasn’t a dull moment. Whether actors are tossing each other in the air, sliding across lavish dinner tables, or making giant poofs of glitter appear out of thin air, Finding Neverland often feels more like a cartoon brought to life than just a play. Most of the jokes are a bit goofy, including a particularly cringe worthy one about Pan’s dreaded pirate nemesis doing things “by the hook,” but in the silliness of the moment, you let those slide. Oh, and did I mention that there was a super cute shaggy dog in the play, too? I actually lost control a bit and screamed when the dog came out for curtain call.
What makes Finding Neverland so special is that it contextualizes Peter Pan in a way that sheds light on the beloved play’s origins, inspirations, and deeper truths. Peter Pan can seem like an anachronism nowadays; its themes about the virtue of childishness and the power of imaginative thinking in the face of cruel realities are sometimes forgotten. We remember it simply as that kids play with the boy in green tights and Tinkerbell. Finding Neverland helps us reconnect with the power of this timeless tale and keeps us singing, swaying, and laughing the whole way through.