Entertainment » Theatre

Finding Neverland

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Friday Aug 11, 2017
A scene from "Finding Neverland."
A scene from "Finding Neverland."  

When "Finding Neverland" played at the American Repertory Theater three summers ago, it was a musical in flux. A previous incarnation in England two years earlier never made it to the West End; instead producer Harvey Weinstein replaced the show's composer, lyricist and book writer with a new team (librettist James Graham; and songwriters Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy), and brought in director Diane Paulus (the ART's artistic director) to stage the American production, which had a hugely successful try-out in Cambridge before moving to New York the following spring.

Much happened in the interim: the show's lead, the charming Jeremy Jordan was replaced by Michael Morrison; Kelsey Grammar was brought in to play a theater impresario in a show-stealing role; songs were jettisoned and a new opening was developed; characters were curtailed or cut. In one case, an actor playing a dog replaced by a real one. But did the show find its footing?

If the audience's response is any indication, it succeeds in the handsome touring production at the Opera House through August 20. There is something about its subject -- the creative process that Edwardian playwright J.M. Barrie went through in creating his greatest triumph "Peter Pan" -- that enchants the inner-child in us all, or at least those who enthusiastically cheered it on opening night.

In Cambridge, the musical showed promise, which may be why it received largely glass-half-full reviews; now in its finished form, it elicits something closer to a glass-half-empty response. Perhaps a certain familiarity with the material breeds some contempt. Whatever the reason, "Finding Neverland" is more lumpy and obvious in its attempt to tell a poignant story of Barrie's journey to bringing his fantastic world to the stage.

A scene from "Finding Neverland."  

It certainly is a sleeker production with a lively new opening and more focused story-telling that concentrates from the onset on Barrie's relationship with the four Llewelyn Davies boys and their widowed mother, Sylvia, he meets in Kensington Gardens. Barrie, London's leading playwright, is suffering from writer's block and finds playing with the boys and their mother a kind-of therapy, much to the chagrin of his snobbish wife and anxious producer, both of whom want him to produce another of the drawing room comedies for which he is famous. The boys allow Barrie to embrace his inner-child and, gradually, give him inspiration for writing something more daring, even radical: a play aimed at children that adults can enjoy as well. (The story is adapted from Marc Forster's lovely 2004 film that featured Johnny Depp in one of his best performances.)

The process proves a bit arduous in the longish first act, which follows how Barrie overcomes his writer's block. Wisely Graham moves the story away from Barrie's troubled domestic life to focus on his growing affection for the Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother, a recent widow. Yet, as it was in Cambridge, the musical doesn't come-to-life until near the end of the first act when Captain Hook emerges from Barrie's imagination to encourage him to find the strength to write his unusual play. In spectacular fashion, Hook pushes Barrie forward as a pirate ship is erected around them. At that point, "Finding Neverland" finds its footing.

Up to that point its mix of old-school musical comedy numbers and 1980s-styled power ballads tread water; too much of the time, the characters sing of embracing their imaginations with songs that lack the very element they extol. At least the second act brings a glimpse of "Peter Pan," which unfolds in a final scene when the company visits the bedroom of the seriously ill Sylvia to perform it for her.

A scene from "Finding Neverland."  

Yet, unlike the film it is based on, that scene isn't nearly as touching as it should be. The relentlessly upbeat nature of the writing, which professes to embrace that inner-child within and dare to be different, insulates the material in ways that don't allow emotions to organically flow. It prompts us to feel, but it feels rhetorical and synthetic. Even the most affecting moment -- a song between Barrie and the troubled Peter, the most sensitive of the Llewelyn Davies boys -- just pushed an emotional button without much of response.

All of this is a shame because "Finding Neverland" attempts to explore the thorny topic of the grief children experience at the loss of a parent. That the creative team approach it with familiar tropes that push emotional buttons but don't quite earn those tears it hopes to engender is a letdown. Even a gorgeous special effect in its final moments that offers a shimmering vision of passing into the other world lacks the power it had in Cambridge. Rather than push beneath the surface, the creative team illustrate the story's surface with glib, musical theater efficiency. It's hard not to like a show with clever children, a classic fantasy and a scene-stealing dog; it's a bit more difficult to fall in love with it.

Nonetheless the presentation is polished and assured. Diane Paulus's staging is efficient and often imaginative. A romantic duet between Barrie and Sylvia is staged largely in darkness with their shadows filling the rear of the stage; a production number in which Barrie is confronted by his angry rivals has bite; and the "Peter Pan" sequence, which includes the aforementioned special effect, is simple and effective. Mia Michaels' choreography has a funny, often satiric edge; and abstracted look of Scott Pask's sets is deftly augmented by Philip S. Rosenberg's varied lighting, Jon Driscoll's projections and Suttirat Larlarb's playful costumes.

Billy Harrigan Tighe sings the role of Barrie beautifully, but he never makes the emotional connection with the audience that would resonate with pathos. His romance with Sylvia is one of the show's weakest elements, and is made only worse by the lack of chemistry he has with Christine Dwyer, who also sings well but is too bubbly for her own good. It was the Lleweln Davies boys who stole the show on opening night -- Connor Jameson Casey, Colin Wheeler, Turner Birthisel, and Tyler Patrick Hennessy - each charmed in their own way, notably in their second act quartet "We're All Made of Stars." John Davidson possesses the big, musical-comedy panache necessary to make producer Charles Frohman memorable, and he soars as Captain Hook in the first act finale. Equally good is Karen Murphy as Sylvia's mother, a dour society matron who, by the end of the show, gives into her inner child. "Finding Neverland" never quite finds that special place to make it unique; it is a big, boisterous and old school musical that tries really hard to touch the heart, but never quite succeeds.

"Finding Neverland" continues through August 20 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Broadway in Boston website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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