Based on the film of the same name — which starred Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet and probably made you sob for a good solid hour after you saw it — the musical “Finding Neverland” has arrived in South Florida for the first time. Broadway has never found anything it can’t set to music, especially not the story about the creation of the enduring, beloved Peter Pan.
Written by James Graham, with music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, “Finding Neverland” follows the plot of the film (adapted from Allen Knee’s play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan”) about playwright J.M. Barrie (played in this production by three different actors over the course of the Fort Lauderdale run: Will Ray, Noah Plomgren and Billy Harrigan Tighe).
Barrie is struggling to write something new and different but coming up dry. Then he meets four rambunctious young brothers in the park one day. Their rowdy games rekindle his inner child and remind him just how good it is to be a kid. The boys’ beautiful widowed mother, Sylvia (Christine Dwyer), plagued by a slight cough that is going to loom large in the second half of the play, inflames different but no less powerful emotions.
As a celebration of imagination and the innocence of childhood, “Finding Neverland,” which runs through June 25 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, is energetic and enticing. As a musical, its appeal is somewhat more mixed. Some of the ballads, while beautifully sung by Ray and Dwyer, feel generic and forgettable, and the production gets off to something of a slow start until the lively “We Own the Night,” in which Barrie, Sylvia and the boys enliven a dull dinner party by inviting the servants to dance (but only in their minds).
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The first half of the show roars to life then, with ingeniously staged numbers like “Circus of Your Mind” and the delightful, showstopping “Hook,” in which Barrie meets Peter Pan’s nemesis (who, as it turns out, has a lot in common with Barrie’s id). As the famous pirate, Rory Donovan (he also doubles as theater owner Charles Frohman, who is skeptical about the economic value of Barrie’s new work) comes close to stealing the show, which is not easy when you’re competing for attention with four adorable singing kids and a real dog.
Though there is plenty for children to like in “Finding Neverland” — the bright, funny costumes of Frohman’s acting troupe, the creative staging, the appeal of the brothers (played by a rotating cast of boys) — the play is probably best for kids 8 and older. Barrie’s chaste romance with Sylvia will leave younger ones fidgety. The grown-ups may be somewhat unmoved about that part, too, but you don’t have to believe in fairies to find the magic in “Finding Neverland.”