The magic of Peter Pan has flown into the Durham Performing Arts Center this week, in an unexpected way.
What’s expected when you see “Finding Neverland,” is a story about author J.M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) finding the inspiration for Neverland and all the fairy dust, pirates, flying boys and adventure that lies within. That is there. But “Finding Neverland” is also a serious story of children dealing with the death of a parent. There’s also a romance blooming, a marriage ending and the business of producing a play in London in 1903. All that and some great songs and a real dog.
“Finding Neverland” opened at DPAC on Tuesday and is on stage through Sunday.
A kid reviewer might lead with the dog, so let’s get to that. Porthos is the fluffy, friendly dog of the family led by Sylvia Llewelyn Davis (Christine Dwyer), the widowed mother of four boys — Peter (Mitchell Wray), Michael (Jordan Cole), George (Finn Faulconer) and Jack (Tyler Hennessy), as the boys were played on opening night. The boys did a great job, with Wray as Peter, a boy who, rather than never growing up like the Peter Pan character, instead is urged by Barrie to rediscover his childhood.
The dog’s real name is Sammy (who alternates with a dog named Bailey) and he is adorable and grabs the audience’s attention everytime he is on stage. Which is briefly and sporadically, because it’s real dog. A real awesome dog. The “Finding Neverland” tour knows this, and there is a stuffed animal dog for sale at the souvenir stand.
The set design of Kensington Gardens is delightful, which is the only way to describe a scene out of a storybook with red balloons, green trees, a park bench and more sense of whimsy than can be quantified. The colors of this production are such a great depiction of the Neverland to which we never actually go, though some of it is sampled with a well done ship scene at the end of Act One.
The ensemble of “Finding Neverland” includes a familiar face for dedicated DPAC season seat members. Will Ray, who is in the ensemble and plays the Captain Hook of the acting troupe, was just at DPAC a few months ago. Ray performed a song from “Les Miserables” at the 2017-18 DPAC season announcement, as he was Valjean in “Les Mis” on Broadway.
Another notable ensemble member is Dwelvan David, a member of the acting troupe that Barrie writes for, and who delivers some of the best lines of the show.
What makes “Finding Neverland” worth seeing is that is a new musical that feels fresh even if the subject matter is a century old. You’ll laugh, you might tear up, and you’ll remember the fun of playing as a child and using your imagination. Plus kids will enjoy the show, too, for the dog, yes, but also for magic of Neverland that has perennial appeal.