Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This musical is an adaptation of Marc Foster's 2004 film which was in turn based on Allan Knee's 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan. It tells the story of how James M. Barrie, came to create his greatest work, Peter Pan, through Barrie's friendship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four boys, George, Jack, Peter and Michael. Barrie was a hugely popular playwright in his day, but had run into a creative desert, feeling that his work was becoming repetitious and lacked vibrancy. Indeed, aside from Peter Pan, little of Barrie's work is remembered today. In Finding Neverland, Barrie befriends the Llewelyn boys and their recently widowed young mother Sylvia in Kensington Garden. The boys are recovering from their father's death, especially Peter, who had been hit the hardest by the injustice of his loss. Barrie and the boys are able to rekindle a playfulness in one another, to spark imagination and invent stories, which leads to Barrie's masterwork about a boy who wouldn't grow up.
Barrie's growing involvement with the Llewelyn Davies family, and in particular with Sylvia, is the cause of disapproval by Sylvia's protective mother, and of even greater concern to Barrie's wife Mary. With the relationship between Barrie, an incessant dreamer, and Mary, ever-practical and fixed on polite society, already deteriorating, his devoted friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family seems likely to push his marriage over the edge. Meanwhile, Barrie's theatrical producer and friend Charles Frohman impatiently waits for James to come up with a new hit play, and is highly skeptical of James' ramblings about a play with fairies, pirates, and lost boys. Of course, we know that imagination prevailed, giving rise to one of the most popular figures in children's literature, a play that has been recreated over and over, in in print, on stage, and in film, bringing entertainment and inspiration to all ages.
I admit that when I took my seat at Finding Neverland I was not really sure how much I would like it. I had enjoyed the movie when I saw it upon its release thirteen years ago. And I have loved Peter Pan for as long as I can remember. It was the first "chapter book" I ever owned, read to me when I was three years old. The TV broadcast of the classic musical staring Mary Martin was the start of a life-long love of musical theater. Yet, the musical Finding Neverland had a lackluster record. It ran for over a year after it opened in Spring 2015 on Broadway, but was neither a critical nor a box office success. It was overshadowed by other shows on Broadway that season and by a new show that opened right at the beginning of the next season, Hamilton. That Finding Neverland ran as long as it did was most likely due to marquee names Matthew Morrison (just off his starring role on "Glee") and Kelsey Grammer, as well as the injection of funds from Weinstein Live Entertainment. Many felt the show was merely a Weinstein vanity project.
The other reason I was skeptical is that I had heard the entire score (music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy) on the cast album, and while there are some songs with energy, and others with heart, none were particularly memorable. I am happy to report that having now experienced the music in service to a full physical production, I am far more pleased with it. It is still the case that it does not rank as a great score, and that none of the individual songs are destined to become songbook standards, but in the context of the show, they work. Among them, they provide local context and color, energize the narrative, provide outlets for James and the boys' imaginative rambles, express characters' inner fears and longings, and launch into celebration. These are exactly the things a musical score should do. Further, the music is performed by an excellent pit orchestra conducted by Ryan Cantwell.
The book by James Graham moves back and forth between the earth-bound emotional stories of a writer struggling to gain new inspiration, a family in need of new enthusiasm for life, and a man and woman who find a bond neither had been expecting, and the lighter-than-air flights of fancy, full of pirates, mermaids, flying children and days that never end. Leaping from one plane to another can be challenging, but for the most part, Graham's book accomplishes a smooth landing after each leap.
Director Diane Paulus balances the more naturalistic scenes with the fantasy sequences, moving between them seamlessly. In this, the scenic design by Scott Pask, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, and projections by Jon Driscoll are enormous allies, sometimes creating a real and fantastic setting simultaneously, placing characters off the ground and up among the stars, then gently back to Earth. Mia Michaels contributes inventive choreography that fits within the world of the characters, even the ensemble playersno lunging jazz handsand adds verve and dynamism to the musical numbers.
Billy Harrigan Tighe is wonderful as Barrie, offering a beautiful voice, fine acting, graceful movement, and brooding good looks. As Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, Lael Van Keuren makes a great match for him, tender and unassuming, lovely and wise, and with a clear voice that brings heart to her solos and Sylvia's duets with James. John Davidson is well known to those of us who have been around a while, seen on countless TV variety shows, but he also has a large resume of stage work, used to great advantage as Charles Frohman, Barrie's loyal friend and put-upon producer. Davidson also appears as Captain Hook in Barrie's imagination, challenging the writer to take bold action in his life. Davidson's dreamy crooner's voice is gone, but he brings humor and heart to his vocals, and has great fun with his characters.
Karen Murphy plays Sylvia's mother, Mrs. du Maurier, who tries to keep James away from Sylvia and the children. She is suitably sharp-edged, one might say snooty, and determined to uphold the social conventions of the age. The ensemble step in as a variety of characters, all doing fine work throughout, with Dwelvan David and Matt Wolpe earning laughs as members of Frohman's acting company. And, not to be forgotten, a sheepdog named Sammy makes a winning impression as James' dog Porthos.
Six young actors rotate in performances as the four Llewelyn-Davies boys. All four at the performance I attended were wonderful. The role of Peter is a key to the whole story, and Connor Jameson Casey shows us Peter's anger and hurt, gradually opening up to renewed hope through Mr. Barrie's friendship, until he could regain his boyish giddiness. Colin Wheeler conveys the yearning for maturity as the eldest, Peter; Wyatt Cirbus shows the most spunk and daring as Jack; and Tyler Patrick Hennessy is suitably adorable as the youngest, Michael. All four of these young actors sing and dance like pros, and their faux jug band number "We're All Made of Stars" is one of the show's highlights.
Because of its focus on their relationship, Finding Neverland gives an impression that James M. Barrie and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies were in a world of their own. In fact, they were both very worldly and complicated people who travelled in sophisticated circles. Sylvia's family, the du Mauriers, included noted actors and authors. Barrie was good friends with H.G. Wells and played cricket with Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G Woodhouse, and A. A. Milne. He was friends with Antarctica explorer Robert Scott and African explorer Joseph Thomson, and kept up a long correspondence with Robert Louis Stevenson, who was living in Samoa. His neighbor, George Bernard Shaw, once appeared in a film of one of Barrie's scripts. Yet, in this one moment of his life, a mother and her sons ignited impulses within him to spark the creation of a play like no other, for audiences of all ages. At its end it acknowledges that although we do grow up, the spirit of Peter Pan can always appear at our window to help us revisit Neverland when we need a dose of it.
Finding Neverland is grand entertainment and also a tribute to the enduring power of Neverland in the hearts of those who strive to believe.
Finding Neverland runs through November 5, 2017, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $39.00 - $175.00. For ticket information call 800-982-2787 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.findingneverlandthemusical.com/tour.
Book: James Graham, based on the Miramax motion picture written by David Magee and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee; Music and Lyrics: Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy; Director: Diane Paulus; Choreography: Mia Michaels; Orchestrations: Simon Hale; Music Supervision: Fred Lassen; Scenic Design: Scott Pask; Costume Design: Suttirat Anne Larlarb; Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner; Sound Design: Jonathan Deans; Projections Design: Jon Driscoll; Hair and Makeup Design: Richard Mawbey; Illusion Design: Paul Kieve; Air Sculpture: Daniel Wurtzel; Flying Effects: Production Resource Group; Original Music Supervisor and Dance and Incidental Music Arranger: David Chase; Vocal Designer: AnnMarie Milazzo; Music Director: Ryan Cantwell; Music Coordinator: John Miller; Animal Trainer: William Berloni; Casting: Stewart/Whitley; Production Stage Manager: Kelsey Tippins; Associate Director: Mia Walker; Artistic Associate: Nancy Harrington
Cast: Caitlyn Caughell (Miss Jones), Dwelvan David (Mr. Henshaw), John Davidson (Charles Frohman/Captain James Hook), Mary Kate Hartung (Acting Troup Wendy), Victoria Huston-Elem (Miss Bassett), Thomas Miller (Elliot), Karen Murphy (Mrs. du Maurier), Noah Plomgren (Lord Cannan), Will Ray (Acting Troup Captain Hook), Kristine Reese (Mary Barrie), Billy Harrigan Tighe (J. M. Barrie), Dee Tomasetta (Peter Pan), Karl Skyler Urban (Albert), Lael Van Keuren (Sylvia Llewelyn Davies), Matt Wolpe (Mr. Cromer).
The Llewelyn-Davies Children: Turner Birthisel (Peter/Jack/Michael), Conner Jameson Casey (George/Peter/Jack), Wyatt Cirbus (Peter/Jack/Michael), Bergman Freedman (George/Peter/Jack), Tyler Patrick Hennessy (Jack/Michael), Colin Wheeler (George/Peter/Jack).
Ensemble: Christina Belinsky, Caitlyn Caughell, Sarah Marie Charles, Calvin L. Cooper, Dwelvan David, Nathan Duszny, Mary Kate Hartung, Victoria Huston-Elem, Thomas Miller, Noah Plomgren, Will Ray, Kristine Reese, Dee Tomasetta, Karl Skyler Urban and Mat Wolpe.