There's always something a little creepy about 19th-century British authors who write about/for children. Peter Pan and Alice share the common bond of the eternal child, and their creators, J. M. Barrie and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) seem to want to be them. Finding Neverland is the prequel to Peter Pan, the story of how Barrie created the tale. This touring show, one of the Broadway Philadelphia series at the Academy of Music, is a musical that is an odd amalgam of whimsy and pathos, an adult drama that pretends to be a children's show.
With a book by James Graham and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, Finding Neverland stars Billy Harrigan Tighe as the man who didn't want to grow up and finds his true self while playing with four boys in Kensington Gardens in London. They are the sons of Sylvia (Lael Van Keuren, who delivers a knockout rendition of "All that Matters"), and soon a romance develops between the married man and the lovely widow, but his heart belongs to the boys.
One of her sons, Peter, is grieving his father's death and has lost all his sense of joy. Barrie, meanwhile, is desperately looking for an idea for a new play. The boy discovers the pleasures of his imagination and starts to write a play himself. All four young actors — Turner Birthisel as Peter, Colin Wheeler as George, Wyatt Cirbus as Jack, and Tyler Hennessy as Michael — are superb. They maintain perfect English accents, they develop individual characters for their roles, and they can sing.
We are made to understand that Barrie's social-climbing wife (Kristine Reese) and straitlaced mother (the terrific Karen Murphy) make him desperate to break out of the constraints of proper Victorian life (think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without the violence); these conflicts explain Barrie's arrested development (what has been called the Peter Pan Syndrome).
Sadness and worry — Sylvia is fatally ill — make the need to escape real life all the more urgent, and Barrie writes a play called Peter Pan filled with fairies and pirates and crocodiles. Finding Neverland veers between the world of London theater, with backstage jokes about fairies and the producer (rip-roarin' John Davidson, who doubles as a nifty Captain Hook). The play-within-the-play falls a little flat, although there are great moments: Nana, the dog, is played by stentorian Dwelvan David, who seems born to play Othello; and Dee Tomasettta plays Peter Pan, which turns out, oddly, to be a bit part.
The sets designed by Scott Pask are stunning, as are the beautifully detailed costumes (designed by Suttirat Anne Larlarb), with lots of magical effects created by Paul Kieve. The choreography (Mia Michaels) is, generally, inane and chaotic. Diane Paulus directs.
Finding Neverland. Through Nov. 26 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. Tickets $25-$614. Information: kimmelcenter.org, 215-731-3333