BWW Review: Charming but Flawed FINDING NEVERLAND Searches for Magic
In preparation for seeing the touring version of the 2015 Broadway musical adaptation of FINDING NEVERLAND at OC's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa this week (where it will play through April 2, 2017), I decided to re-watch the 2004 Oscar nominated film that inspired it, in order to reacquaint myself to this particular re-telling of the "making of" the Peter Pan legend. The five-hanky tearjerker written by David Magee and directed by Marc Forster certainly wrings out deep emotions from its viewers while introducing hit-starved playwright J.M. Barrie (played by Johnny Depp), the author and creator of Peter Pan, and the family he befriends that also served as his muses for his most famous work.
In hindsight, part of me wishes I didn't watch the movie again, mostly because the film's freshness in my mind reiterated to me that this stage adaptation would have been much better off had it stayed closer connected to the film as much as possible. A charming though perplexing---and, at times, frustrating---adaptation, FINDING NEVERLAND jets into too many erratic directions at any given moment and doesn't gel completely as a whole. And for all its gorgeous, visual splendor, it is surprisingly lacking in honest-to-goodness stage magic.
For more than a century, Barrie's fantastical story of Peter Pan---the adventurous, magically-blessed boy who refuses to grow up---has received countless similar origin stories that try to trace how Peter became Pan... from books, television, and film. Some are more inventive and clever than others, but the semi-autobiographical FINDING NEVERLAND---based on Allan Knee's 1998 play THE MAN WHO WAS PETER PAN---hews perhaps the closest to actual real-life events by showing how Barrie (here played by Billy Harrigan Tighe), whose chance encounter with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her tiny all-male brood inspired him to create the stories we all know so well today.
Forced to come up with a fresh new play by his worrisome American producer Charles Frohman (Matthew Quinn, at this performance) to erase the memory of his last bad one, Barrie finds himself wandering Kensington Gardens one afternoon hoping to combat writer's block. There, he meets the Davies boys George (Finn Faulconer, at this performance), Jack (Colin Wheeler, at this performance), Michael (Jordan Cole, at this performance), and Peter (Ben Krieger, at this performance) playing in the park accompanied by their harried but lovely mother Sylvia.
Barrie, a playful, immature man himself, instantly forms a liking with the playful, highly-imaginative boys, whose playtime consists of elaborate, made-up stories. Soon---despite the odd friendship developing between a fully-grown man and four impressionable young kids---is welcomed frequently into the Davies household. Rightfully skeptical of the situation, though, is Sylvia's mother Emma du Maurier (Karen Murphy) who, like everyone else in London, is increasingly a little troubled by Barrie's involvement in their lives.
But it all seems to be benign: Barrie is genuinely fascinated by the boys (seeing himself as a make-shift father-figure of sorts) and soon begins development of a new play centered around them, paying particular attention to young Peter, whom Barrie finds to be a smart and sensitive young man that reminds him of his younger self. The play he shapes, however, confounds his producer and assembled cast, who can't see his vision in its full glory. Alas, Barrie assures all that the play---despite its juvenile gathering of pirates, fairies, and mermaids---will connect with all audiences of all ages and all tastes.
Meanwhile, as Barrie's own home life with his wife Mary (Crystal Kellogg) starts to disintegrate, he finds himself growing ever closer to Sylvia. But unfortunately, something gloomy is on the horizon that could end such courtship before it even truly begins.
And.... Cue the tears.
Just like the film, the stage musical adaptation of FINDING NEVERLAND tries its best to sprinkle as many spotlight-illuminated real-life moments in the narrative that have a direct (or slightly skewed) connection to the Peter Pan play that Barrie eventually writes---from why the Darling nursery is run by a large shaggy-haired dog, to why a thimble is a good-enough substitute for a first kiss. Finding these parallel "Easter eggs," intermixed with a few witty one-liners here and there, I suppose, is part of the fun...but I'm not sure these bits of fun is enough to sustain a musical clearly suffering from an identity crisis.
That familiarity with its magical source material is perhaps why FINDING NEVERLAND feels like it comes up short most of the time, particularly in its frustratingly schizophrenic first act. In many ways, it somehow stops itself from going full tilt---except for maybe trying to hit you on the head with, uh, you know... Important Life Lessons you may have missed while reading or watching much more subtle fare. This to me is genuinely shocking to see transpire in this production---especially after realizing that FINDING NEVERLAND is helmed by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus, the genius director behind such awe-inspiring, beautifully-realized stage shows such as the recent revivals of HAIR, PORGY & BESS, and PIPPIN as well as the hit stage adaptation of WAITRESS. But armed with an uneven book by James Graham, FINDING NEVERLAND simply meanders.
Many of the songs, written by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, are fine as stand-alone compositions, but they don't necessarily sound like they belong in THIS musical. Rather, the show's musical collection sounds more like a hodgepodge of randomly procured adult-contemporary pop that feels inserted rather than integrated. Compare the song list in the national tour production with the Broadway song list and you'll see that things have been moved, rearranged, deleted, or newly inserted for this traveling iteration. This is already a surefooted sign that the show is still perhaps a work-in-progress, even now in the midst of its national tour.
Things vastly improve during the more enjoyable, less cluttered second act, which---surprise---feels much more connected to the film that originated it (in a way, the entire film feels like it was compressed to fit the entire second act). Suddenly, FINDING NEVERLAND finds a palatable balance between humor, whimsy, and genuine heartbreak that it sorely lacked before intermission.
While the first act can't decide its focus (overstuffing it instead with a lot of exposition and extraneous muck), the second act much more effectively demonstrates the correlation between the Davies family and the play Barrie is so desperate to put on for London theatergoers. There are also even more out-front emotional clouds hanging over the story that are highlighted in the second act that all effectively tugs on the audience's heartstrings---so much so that many will eventually forget how terribly executed the first half was in the first place. Sure, it's blatantly manipulative, but, man, you'd really have to be a Grinch not to feel a lump in your throat as real-life Peter suddenly realizes that he'll eventually have to grow up and face the not-so-nice aspects of the adult world, especially the fragile mortality of adults who've been charged to care and look out for them. Well, geez, I'd want to be Peter Pan, the character, too!
And, yep, the second act certainly amps up the magic we've all kind of longed for all along.
It's actually too bad, because on the surface, FINDING NEVERLAND has the makings to be wholly entertaining, especially given its relatively familiar roots. Visually, the production is aesthetically stunning: from Scott Pask's scenic designs, John Driscoll's dazzling projections, and Suttirat Anne Larlarb's period garments, to Kenneth Posner's lighting, Richard Maybey's hair and makeup, and Jonathan Deans' enveloping sound design. The lyrical movements devised by choreographer Mia Michaels are gorgeously jarring, though some of it does feel like they belong to a much more ethereal musical rather than this one, so there's a disconnect at times.
As for the cast, these talented, enthusiastic actors winningly do their best with their given material. Tighe makes for a rather dashing J.M. Barrie, and makes an effective case for why everyone surrenders to his charms easily---including Dwyer's effervescent Sylvia. Dwyer's soaring voice is also wonderfully matched with Tighe's strong vocals, giving way to a believable chemistry (more affectionate than sexual, that is).
Stepping in for Tom Hewitt, understudy Quinn does a great job essaying both Barrie's Yankee theater producer Charles Frohman and his imaginary alter-ego Captain Hook. The young actors who played the Davies boys were also all wonderful, particularly Krieger as Peter (his beautifully-sung duet with Barrie in "When Your Feet Don't Touch The Ground" is an emotional highlight). Extra kudos to supporting players Dwelvan David for his scene-stealing appearances as the acting troupe thespian Mr. Henshaw who has been tasked to play Nana in the play "Peter Pan," and Murphy as Sylvia's stern and protective mother.
By the time FINDING NEVERLAND reaches its highly emotional ending, most audience members may be in a forgiving mood and forget the travesties of the jumbled first act. While the musical's sentimental qualities may sear into lots of you, I feel that many won't get past how the production seems to go through the motions initially just to speed towards the latter scenes of smile-inducing visuals ("Oh, look, Peter Pan the play is happening right in front of us!") and its ugly-cry-baiting story climax ("awww, poor Peter. This kid's going to need a lot of therapy.") As in most musicals and plays, the entire journey is what makes something worth experiencing, not just the final destination.
But, truly for me, the real sin of FINDING NEVERLAND is its surprising lack of magical moments. The magic comes too little and too late, but judging by the relatively strong applause the musical received during the ending of its OC stop, maybe I'm in the minority in hanging onto this gripe.
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Photos from the National Tour of FINDING NEVERLAND by Jeremy Daniel, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Review also published in OnStage.
Performances of the National Tour of FINDING NEVERLAND at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, April 2, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.