Non-Equity tours of musicals aren’t the best look for Washington’s historic National Theatre, and the wan “Finding Neverland” onstage this week illustrates the point. The rumpled set looks as if it’s been packed and unpacked a few too many times, and the broad performances rarely puff life into a 2015 Broadway project so wobbly that it’s only now getting its D.C. debut.
The results may have been questionable even at the show’s best, for you can safely slot “Neverland” in the Why? pile of screen-to-stage adaptations. The 2004 movie about how J.M. Barrie met a widow with four boys and thus created “Peter Pan” has a splendid tone, slipping charm and heartbreak together and avoiding sappy traps. The fidgety musical, on the other hand, stumbles right away, cracking awkward gags — poor Nanna is reduced to sniffing a tush for laughs — and resorting to bland power ballads belted against inevitable starry skies.
“Pan” fans are teased with a Tinkerbell light flitting magically at the top of the show, though of course “Finding Neverland” barely gets to fairies, pirates and Captain Hook. The story, adapted without nuance or flair by the proven talent James Graham (“Labour of Love,” “This House”), is about the bond that blooms between Barrie — a stalled writer who needs to jump-start his creativity — and the boys who spark his playful side.
Playfulness sure looks like hard work, given all the jumpy choreography and forced laughter in this Diane Paulus production. (The staging is re-created for the tour by Mia Walker.) Jeff Sullivan is a gentle Barrie and Ruby Gibbs beams as the mother of the boys, but deeper connections are elusive. The laughs are too telegraphed, and the caramel pop tunes by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, played by an orchestra of eight, gum up your ears, cresting exactly as expected.
There’s a big adventure number as Barrie’s imagination begins to set sail, swelling the first-act finish with a ship taking over the stage and pirates scampering into view. But not much feels whimsical except the chipper punchlines landed by the plucky young actors playing the kids. Magic flickers when Barrie first imagines the boys flying, and the show’s stardust ending is lovely, but only in a visual sense. The musical’s characterizations are too bloated to be touching.
With the movie’s charm supplanted by anxious comedy and obvious, exhorting songs (“Play,” “Believe,” “Stronger”), what can the performers do but bring energy? The road ahead for this tour is daunting, with 14 stops that include seven one-nighters, one in Salisbury, Md., in 10 states from Michigan to Florida — and that’s just March. This doesn’t seem like the circuit the National should be on.
Finding Neverland, book by James Graham, music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. Diane Paulus’s original direction re-created by Mia Walker. Scenic design, Scott Pask; costumes, Suttirat Anne Larlab; lights, Kenneth Posner; sound design, Shannon Slaton; projections, Jon Driscoll. Through Sunday at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. $54-$104. 800-514-3849. thenationaldc.org.