Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The musical is based on the 2004 film that starred Johnny Depp as Scottish author J.M. Barrie which shows how Barrie's encounter with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four sons inspired him to write his play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. Barrie is up against a deadline and the sense of imagination he sees the boys using in Kensington Park one day is the impetus he needs to create what would become his most enduring creation. He even names the infamous boy who refuses to grow up after one of Sylvia's sons. Conflict is added to the story in several ways. The relationship that is formed between the married Barrie and the widowed Sylvia raises eyebrows and his idea to create a show aimed for children doesn't quite fit with Barrie's skeptical producer Charles Frohman. On top of this, Sylvia's health is failing.
The elements of the story have been slightly changed to make it a more intriguing show (Sylvia wasn't a widow in real life at the time she met Barrie). And for some strange reason Barrie's Scottish accent has been dropped in Billy Harrigan Tighe's charming portrayal, even though Matthew Morrison who originated the part on Broadway spoke with a thick brogue.
James Graham's script is a fairly by the book creation story with obstacles and successes along the way, but it only occasionally soars, often plodding along, with the music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy a combination of power ballads and big ensemble numbers. Most of these work well to draw us into the story with their bouncy, memorable music and somewhat witty lyrics though hardly any of the score shows any musical resemblance to the time period of the piece, which seems a lost opportunity to turn this into something more than just a pop-sounding show with big "American Idol"-sounding ballads. Also, for the tour, the show has slightly been reworked from what Broadway audiences saw, with a new opening song and sequence.
Director Diane Paulus received much well-earned acclaim for her direction of the recent revival of Pippin, but her contributions here exhibit a range of directorial choices from magical to laughable. While the leads including Harrigan Tighe and Christine Dwyer as Sylvia have sensitivity and warmth, Tom Hewitt is commanding as Frohman (and Barrie's alter ego, Captain Hook), and the four boys who play Sylvia's children (Ben Krieger, Jordan Cole, Finn Faulconer, and Mitchell Wray) are delivering beautiful portrayals, the majority of the ensemble are so broad and over the top in their performances that they often appear to be not only in a different show but often stop this one in its tracks, and not in a good way. I have no idea what Paulus was thinking in having such at odds performances from her cast.
Fortunately, Paulus' scenes with the children truly resonate, including a song that all four boys sing called "We Are Made of Stars" that focuses on all of the possibilities in the world and another in which the opening night of Barrie's play starts in the theatre and then transforms into the play being acted out in the four brother's bedroom. Also, the combination of Scott Pask's whimsical set design (his act one closer that recreates the deck of Captain Hook's ship is a winner) and the projections by Jon Driscoll tie perfectly into the imaginative tone of the show. Driscoll's cinematic, animated designs whisk us not only from location to location but also send us soaring over the rooftops of London. This helps somewhat to offset the odd acting choices. The last 20 minutes of the show are truly magical due to Paulus' firm control of the emotional moments, including a direct approach in dealing with the show's treatment of death and loss, and also having the show's two antagonists (Hewitt and Karen Murphy as Sylvia's mother) show growth and understanding. But the biggest piece of magic is a stunning effect by Daniel Wurtzel that features a combination of air and glitter (with Kenneth Posner's beautiful lighting) that dazzles and sends the audience's imaginations soaring.
Finding Neverland isn't a great musical, but it is a charming one as it portrays the sense of magic and awe that one sees through the joyous eyes of a child. While it might not quite soar as high as it could, I found myself holding back tears and feeling quite moved when the final curtain came down.
Finding Neverland runs through March 19th, 2017, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.findingneverlandthemusical.com.
Music and Lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy