More lost boy than pan, ‘Finding Neverland’ crows, but doesn’t fly
By Bob Abelman
It may help resuscitate fairies, but no amount of clapping can reconcile what the musical “Finding Neverland” is and the kind of musical it wants to be.
Following the popular and often unfortunate trend of turning feature films into Broadway musicals, “Finding Neverland” – which opened in New York in 2012 and is on tour and on stage at Playhouse Square – is based on the 2004 biopic about the Scottish-born playwright J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.
Both works explore Barrie’s friendship with the Llewelyn Davies boys, how young Peter inspired the now-famous tale and its featured character, and Barrie’s complicated relationship with their mother, Sylvia.
But while the film embraces the rather gloomy story of a depressed and depleted playwright whose latest work flopped horribly, whose wife left him for another man, and whose scandalous relationship with the married Sylvia ended with her death from heart cancer, the musical douses the darkness with treacle.
Sorted details about Barrie’s psychological state and Sylvia’s marital status and illness, which are central to and unavoidable in the biographical story being told, are glossed over and presented with overt sentimentality in James Graham’s script.
Barrie (Kevin Kern) now struggles against his own inhibitions rather than his inner demons, while Sylvia (Christine Dwyer) is conveniently widowed and doesn’t cough until well into Act 2.
Life’s harsh realities and stifling Victorian era mores are personified by Sylvia’s protective mother (Joanna Glushak) and reduced to life-affirming messages relayed through Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy’s syrupy and wholly unmemorable music/lyrics.
And everything that moves is set to Mia Michaels’ theatrically exaggerated choreography, imbued with eye-candy special effects by Paul Kieve and Daniel Wurtzel, and placed within Scott Pask and Kenneth Posner’s picture postcard set and lighting designs.
Everything is enriched by Jon Driscoll’s ambient animated projections that include passing clouds over the rooftops of London, birds flying through Kensington Gardens, and starry skies.
Under director Diane Paulus’ staging, “Finding Neverland” more closely resembles the stylistically oversaturated Disney stage version of “Mary Poppins” than anything associated with Peter Pan, including the original 1954 Broadway production, and tries way too hard to do so.
All this flies in the face of the trajectory of the biodrama that drives this musical. In fact, there are times during the production when songs seem disruptive and unwelcome, suggesting that this musical should not be a musical at all.
And yet, if seen through the eyes of a child – who must surely be the target audience for this affair despite claims to the contrary by its producers – “Finding Neverland” is thoroughly entertaining.
Kern as Barrie (a role he understudied on Broadway) and Dwyer as Sylvia have incredible voices and sell their story with immense passion and precision. The same goes for Tom Hewitt, who employs his impressive stage presence, comic timing and booming voice to great effect as both Barrie’s benefactor Charles Frohman and Captain Hook.
And the talented ensemble, who anchor each elaborate production number and take on roles as servants, strolling citizens and members of Frohman’s theater troupe, are superb. Matt Wolpe and Dwelvan David are particularly delightful, while the dance between Dee Tomasetta as Peter Pan and Adrianne Chu as Wendy during a brief scene from Barrie’s first staging of “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” is wonderful.
The actors playing the four Davies children on opening night – Eli Tokash as Peter, Mitchell Wray as Jack, Finn Faulconer as George and Jordan Cole as Michael – are enchanting. They are natural in their playfulness and handle all the key acting moments that come their way. So does Sammy, who plays Barrie’s dog and never misses a cue.
In short, the stage explodes with energy and impressive execution. And all that highly stylized choreography, eye-candy effects and animated projection, which undermines its source material, is mesmerizing nonetheless.
The production opens with the bright light of Tinker Bell beckoning us to come with her behind the closed curtains for a great adventure. What awaits us there is the Peter Pan story as told by the Lost Boys from Barrie’s novel, who crow loud and long but never quite get off the floor to fly.
“I think to have faith is to have wings,” says Sylvia sometime during “Finding Neverland.” In the world of musical theater, it takes a bit more than that. CV
WHERE: Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Nov. 20
TICKETS & INFO: $10-$100, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Nov 2, 2016.
Lead image: The ensemble of “Finding Neverland” | Photo / Carol Rosegg