BWW REVIEW: FINDING NEVERLAND Needs to Find Its Voice
Book by James Graham; music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy; presented by special arrangement with Harvey Weinstein; based on the Miramax motion picture written by David Magee and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee; director, Diane Paulus; choreographer, Mia Michaels; music supervisor, David Chase; scenic design, Scott Pask; costume design, Suttirat Larlarb; lighting design, Philip S. Rosenberg; sound design, Jonathan Deans; projection designer, Gilles Papain; air sculptor, Daniel Wurtzel; illusions, Paul Kieve; music director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Cast in Order of Appearance:
J. M. Barrie, Jeremy Jordan; Charles Frohman, Michael McGrath; Mary Barrie, Jeanna De Waal; Michael Llewelyn Davies, Alex Dreier; Jack Llewelyn Davies, Hayden Signoretti; George Llewelyn Davies, Sawyer Nunes; Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, Laura Michelle Kelly; Peter Llewelyn Davies, Aidan Gemme; Mrs. Du Maurier, Carolee Carmello; James Hook, Michael McGrath; Ensemble: Courtney Balan, Dana Costello, Rory Donovan, Gaelen Gilliland, Thayne Jasperson, Josh Lamon, Melanie Moore, Mary Page Nance, Stuart Neal, Emma Pfaeffle, Janathan Ritter,Tyley Ross, JC Schuster, Paul Slade Smith, Ron Todorowski
Performances and Tickets:
Now through September 28, American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Mass.; tickets range from $25 to $95 and are available online at www.americanrepertorytheater.org or by calling the box office at 617-547-8300. A very limited number of standing room tickets are available for select sold-out shows. One ticket per person only must be purchased in person at the Box Office on the day of the show. Box Office opens at 12:00 p.m.
Just as central character J. M. Barrie needs to find his true voice in order to break through the writer's block that is hampering his playwriting career, FINDING NEVERLAND, the new musical about the family that inspired the beleaguered author to create Peter Pan, needs to find its voice, too. Teetering abruptly between empty frivolousness and genuine pathos, FINDING NEVERLAND is an uneven adventure in its current pre-Broadway tryout at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.
FINDING NEVERLAND has traveled a bumpy road on its journey to Broadway. Famed movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, in his first foray into theatrical producing with this musical adaptation of his hit 2004 film, scrapped the original creative team after the show opened in Leicester, England to a lukewarm reception and mixed reviews. ART's Tony Award-winning artistic director Diane Paulus and "So You Think You Can Dance" choreographer Mia Michaels replaced director/choreographer Rob Ashford. British playwright James Graham took over book-writing duties from Allan Knee (The Man Who Was Peter Pan), and British pop music sensations Gary Barlow (songwriter and lead singer of the 1990s boy band Take That) and Eliot Kennedy came on board to write a completely new score in place of the one developed by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (Tony nominees for Grey Gardens). This new team's work is what will head to New York City in Spring 2015.
Hopefully, Weinstein and company will take the time available between October and March to determine what exactly they want FINDING NEVERLAND to be. Right now it has the makings of being a truly uplifting story about the possibilities that are available when you follow your own muse; but a heavy dose of Disney-style pop music and silliness and distracting, self-indulgent anachronisms oversimplify (and overstate) the message and obscure the tender heart.
At rise we see American producer Charles Frohman (a winning Michael McGrath) warning J. M. Barrie (a hard-working Jeremy Jordan) that his next new play had better be "Better" than the one that just closed on opening night. Before Barrie's bored wife Mary (a rather vapid Jeanna De Waal) can finish "Rearranging the Furniture," Barrie meets cute in the park with the four Llewelyn Davies boys Michael, Jack, George and Peter and their widowed mother Sylvia (an amiable Laura Michelle Kelly). In no time at all Barrie is leading the family to "Believe" in all manner of fantasy and has them singing and dancing as if he were Harold Hill in The Music Man.
The more time Barrie spends with the Llewelyn Davies, the more open he himself becomes to the creative child inside him. He begins to write the ground-breaking Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, incorporating into the story characters and events inspired by his relationship with the family. His marriage, however, suffers, as does Sylvia's reputation. The more involved Barrie, the children, and Sylvia become with each other, the more Sylvia's mother Emma Du Maurier (a very fine Carolee Carmello) tries to intercede. When Sylvia takes ill, Mrs. Du Maurier and Barrie need to reach an understanding when it comes to the welfare of Michael, Jack, George, and especially the vulnerable Peter.
When FINDING NEVERLAND keeps its focus on the relationship between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family, and how Barrie translates his observations and notes from the page to the stage, moments of true magic occur. We see through clever projections and special effects how Barrie came to create the Darling children's bedroom, the flickering fairy light that became Tinkerbell, a flying Peter and his elusive shadow, the insistent, encroaching ticking clock inside the crocodile, and the infamous sneering, snarling villain Captain Hook. At the end of Act I when Barrie's nightmares and imagination collide in full force, we see theater-making at its finest. "Hook" emerges from the shadows of Barrie's inner demons, and a glorious pirate ship takes shape with an emancipated Barrie at the helm.
In Act II we are treated to another spectacular piece of stage magic when Barrie brings the entire Peter Pan company to the Llewelyn Davies household to enact the play for the ailing Sylvia and the boys. Everyone is captivated by the performance, and even the reserved Mrs. Du Maurier can't resist the story's enchanting spell. When Sylvia ultimately lets her imagination transport her to the wonderful Neverland that Barrie has created for her, Daniel Wurtzel's dazzling air sculpture transports us, too.
Unfortunately, FINDING NEVERLAND too often veers into cartoonish production numbers that obscure rather than illuminate the whimsy at the heart of the story. "We Own the Night" crosses over into the outlandish, with Barrie and Peter conjuring in their minds a madcap melee to replace the staid Victorian dinner party Mrs. Barrie has thrown in order to impress Sylvia's upper class mother and friends.
Musical numbers involving the Peter Pan acting troupe are also jarring when placed next to more heartfelt scenes between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family. "Play" is a song designed to free the inhibitions of the actors who will be playing the Darling family, the Lost Boys, Nana the dog, and all of the colorful characters who inhabit Neverland. Instead it feels like a rowdy barroom drinking song bereft of any sincere emotion or discovery. "Something About This Night" is also a rather frivolous throw-away song that the acting troupe sings on opening night. Its silly comedy all but obliterates the very tender moment shared by Barrie and Peter in "When Your Feet Don't Touch the Ground."
Too much of FINDING NEVERLAND avoids the special bond between Barrie and Peter, in fact. After all, the two share painful childhood losses that have held their dreams prisoner in a cell of conventional thinking for much too long. Barrie makes it his mission, of sorts, to open Peter's heart to joy again, and in so doing he frees his own creative impulses to take full flight. Giving them more substance sooner in Act I would make their transitions in Act II more deeply felt and moving.
The cast of FINDING NEVERLAND is uniformly strong. Jordan captures Barrie's pain and passion eloquently and drives the show's momentum forward without a letdown. He is a dynamic song and dance man when called upon to lead the ensemble, but he also delivers the more tender ballads softly and sincerely. Kelly is a luminous Sylvia, loving and gentle with her boys and also warm with, yet keeping herself at a respectable distance from, Barrie. Though the book doesn't allow her to show her widow's grief when we first meet her, making her (and Barrie) a bit too chipper during their first encounter in the park, she is heartbreaking as her illness becomes more of an obstacle for her. She sings her "All That Matters" and "Sylvia's Lullaby" exquisitely.
McGrath makes for a delectable producer, ably handling the comic one-liners he is given, even if their contemporary sensibilities are a bit too self-indulgent. He also transforms into a larger-than-life dream sequence Captain Hook who, like his real-world alter-ego, prods Barrie to be "Stronger" than those who would hold him down. Carmello gives a delicate, achingly nuanced performance as Mrs. Du Maurier. There is always the sense that she only wants what's best for her daughter and grandchildren, even as she allows her fear of society's censure to repress her own desire for playfulness. Her voice in her duets on "All That Matters" with Kelly and then with Jordan penetrates right to the soul.
Thayne Jasperson as Barrie's dog Porthos is fun without being obtrusive. He has a very cute scene when Porthos comes nose to nose with the actor Mr. Henshaw (Paul Slade Smith) playing Nana during the enactment of Peter Pan. Josh Lamon is adorable as Mr. Cromer, the adult actor charged with playing young Michael in the play within the play, and all four boys - Alex Dreier, Hayden Signoretti, Sawyer Nunes, and especially Aidan Gemme as Peter - handle their ample stage time admirably well.
The score by Barlow and Kennedy is serviceable but undistinguished. Even what should be haunting ballads don't do much to stir emotions. Simon Hale's rich orchestrations are performed with brio by the 14-piece band, but without doubt the most effective of all the numbers in the show are "Hook" and "Stronger" which end Act I on a high.
Mia Michaels' choreography is hit-and-miss. While lively and inventive, its over emphasis on kinetics and strange poses draws attention to the dance for its own sake instead of working in service to the story. The exception is the trio of numbers that make up the Act I finale: "Circus of Your Mind," "Hook," and "Stronger." Here her choreography is telling the tale in ways that enhance Barlow and Kennedy's songs.
Diane Paulus' genius for melding multiple stage elements into a thrillingly emotional audio-visual display is evident here, as well. She coaxes marvelous work out of her entire design team during this sequence and throughout the entire show, most notably from set designer Scott Pask, lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg, projection designer Gilles Papain, and air sculptor Daniel Wurtzel. Suttirat Larlarb's colorful costumes are both period specific and fanciful, taking on an air of hallucinogenic circus chic during the biggest of the imaginative production numbers.
In its current incarnation, FINDING NEVERLAND is a mixed bag of great ideas in search of a consistent voice. In its efforts to be child-like in spirit, it has become childish in tone. There's a difference between fanciful and frenetic, and right now there's all too much of the latter that overpowers the former.
As the producer Charles Frohman sings to J. M. Barrie, "It could be so much better." Hopefully Diane Paulus can shepherd yet another revision of FINDING NEVERLAND to Broadway - one that has a cohesive identity and a more palpably beating heart.
PHOTOS BY Evgenia Eliseeva: Thayne Jasperson as Porthos, Alex Dreier as Michael, Hayden Signoretti as Jack, Jeremy Jordan as J. M. Barrie, Sawyer Nunes as George, and Aidan Gemme as Peter; Jeremy Jordan and Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies; Thayne Jasperson, Jeremy Jordan, Alex Dreier, Aidan Gemme, Hayden Signoretti, and Sawyer Nunes; Melanie Moore as Peter Pan, Emma Pfaeffle as Wendy, and company; The company of Finding Neverland; Carolee Carmello as Mrs. Du Maurier; Jeanna De Waal as Mary Barrie, Jeremy Jordan and company; Jeremy Jordan and Aidan Gemme