Arts & Culture · Theater

Theater Review: ‘Finding Neverland’

3856-jz2Image via the American Repertory Theater.

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan premiered at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London more than a century ago—on December 27, 1904. I have to wonder: Could the audience have foreseen what a classic the story of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up would become?

Pan is a staple in every children’s library and nursery bookshelf. In the past century, it has been produced (and parodied) countless times, and interpreted onscreen by Disney and Spielberg. It inspired a 1954 musical, which still enjoys revivals today, Peter being played by an army of lithe and limber ladies from Mary Martin to Sandy Duncan to Cathy Rigby and, soon, Allison Williams (the pretty but sometimes dimwitted roommate on HBO’s Girls—which might seem like stunt casting if Williams weren’t the genuine article vocally. Google “Allison Williams Nature Boy” if you don’t believe me).

We’ll never know whether that long-ago London audience appreciated what an important opening night they were attending. But I can assure you that the sold-out house at a recent performance at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater did. The excitement at the A.R.T. was palpable; the audience felt that it was on the verge of something pretty spectacular. As Tony-winner Kristin Chenoweth tweeted, “I saw #FindingNeverlandART in Boston. Get ready bway. We got a hit.”

The A.R.T. describes itself as “a leading force in the American theater, producing groundbreaking work in Cambridge and beyond.” Since 2008, it has been under the helm of Artistic Director Diane Paulus, who has already developed several shows that have gone on to acclaimed Broadway runs, including Tony winners The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and Pippin. With her passion for innovative staging and audience immersion, Paulus has raised the bar for all of the Boston area theaters. (Most exciting—as a theater maven myself, not to mention a displaced New Yorker, I can now enjoy high-quality new productions without resorting to annual visits from touring companies of Phantom of the Opera or Mamma Mia!)

Halfway through its run, Neverland now holds the record for the highest gross and highest attendance in the A.R.T.’s history. It’s no small wonder. Diane Paulus isn’t the only powerhouse behind Finding Neverland; the new musical’s producer is Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein, who spearheaded the 2004 movie, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. It was well received—a sentimental charmer, but rather a quiet little film.

There’s nothing quiet about the new musical.

The book by James Graham stays fairly true to the film. Finding Neverland follows the relationship between playwright J. M. Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family. Widow Sylvia and her four sons are sorely in need of some magic, and when Barrie encourages their play, he uncovers the most important play he’ll ever write. Along the way, of course, he falls in love with Sylvia, but—alas—she is ill and he ends up alone. Well, sort of. He ends up guardian to her four boys (and enormous dog). With his masterpiece staged and his inner child unleashed, we anticipate a long and happy life with his adopted sons. (The true story of Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies boys is somewhat less dramatic and significantly sadder, but the musical does end on a hopeful if bittersweet note.)

A traditional and trusted test of a musical’s potential is whether there are “hummable” songs. Finding Neverland has several. “Believe,” “Finding Neverland,” “Circus of Your Mind,” and the first act’s showstopper “Hook” all fit the bill. And, some of the show’s softer, more lyrical numbers like Sylvia’s “All That Matters” and the duet “What You Mean to Me” are truly lovely. Music and lyrics are by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, two exceptionally successful contemporary British musician songwriters. The intricate, often quirky choreography is by Mia Michaels, who draws upon her Cirque du Soleil background to help bring Barrie’s characters (not to mention house servants, revolving doors, and clocks) to life.

Neverland’s scenic design is by Scott Pask, costumes by Suttirat Larlarb and there’s a particularly beautiful sequence toward the end, attributed to “Air Sculptor” Daniel Wurtzel. The show is quite beautiful. if not fully formed. Weinstein has teased that while the A.R.T. production budget was a trifling $3 million, the Broadway version will be $11 million. That’s a lot of air sculpture.

Finding Neverland will open on Broadway next spring. A.R.T. had been coy about its plans, but anyone who doubted that this musical was bound for the Great White Way needed only to look at the cast. Both the leads, Jeremy Jordan and Laura Michelle Kelly, are Broadway headliners. Jordan was nominated for a Tony for his role in Newsies (and may be more familiar as the tortured but dreamy composer from TV’s Smash). Kelly is best known as the unconventional governess in Mary Poppins from both the West End and Broadway casts. Both are powerful and affecting in Neverland—Jordan more so, but only by virtue of his role being much larger.

They are joined by a top-notch supporting cast, including Broadway veterans Jeanna deWaal as Barrie’s unsympathetic wife, Carolee Carmello as Sylvia’s unsympathetic mother, and Tony-winner Michael McGrath as unsympathetic (do we notice a pattern here?) producer Charles Frohman. No one really understands the magical world that Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family have created. Except them. And us, of course.

The adult actors deliver fine performances, as anyone would expect with just the quickest look at their playbill bios. But, I’ll admit I was concerned about the children. In my experience, children in musicals can be the kiss of death, and the Llewelyn Davies boys are absolutely critical to Neverland’s story. I was astounded—and delighted—by all four young actors: Aidan Gemme, Alex Drier, Sawyer Nunes, and Hayden Signoretti. But it was Gemme, as young Peter, who won and nearly broke my heart. Whether this was enchanted casting, inspired writing, or some directorial voodoo on the part of Paulus (the mother of two young children herself), I don’t know. But  it was magic.

Magic is at the core of Finding Neverland. The main theme is that believing is all-important. We must find ways to keep or recapture the joys of childhood, or we perish. (Actually, given Sylvia’s fate, the message may be that we’ll perish anyway, so we may as well enjoy the ride while we can.) Finding Neverland, which may still have some rough spots to iron out (many early critics thought so), makes a convincing and exceptionally entertaining argument to “Believe.

Adding a great dose of playfulness to the plays on the Great White Way could be a very great thing indeed. Will Finding Neverland be a hit on Broadway?

I believe.


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