BWW Review: 'FINDING NEVERLAND' is a Magical Journey at Hippodrome Theatre
If you've seen the Johnny Depp 2004 film, "Finding Neverland," you're aware of the story of playwright J. M. Barrie and how his relationship with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four boys, George, Jack, Peter and Michael, inspired him to write the classic play, "Peter Pan." If you haven't, you can find the whole movie online, or just Google it like everything else these days.
While it seems you can't swing a dead critic without striking a playbill for another "movie-made-musical" (I'm still cringing over "Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark"), in this case, it's actually appropriate. "Finding Neverland" has all the elements for a successful musical: whimsy, magic, boy-meets-girl, and of course, pirates. And director Diana Paulus' production, now at the Hippodrome Theatre in downtown Baltimore, brings them together just right.
Billy Haggingan Tighe, in a role that would have been spot-on-perfect for a young Dick Van Dyke (with whom Mr. Tighe bears a resemblance in more ways than one), plays J. M. Barrie, a man stuck in a writer's rut. He's not blocked, but he does find himself writing, in essence, the same play over and over...much to the chagrin of his producer, Charles Frohman, played by John Davidson.
"Man's greatest invention is the inside. So you don't have go outside," Frohman remarks as the audience is introduced to Barrie in London's Kensington Gardens where he is accosted by four "pirates," i.e. Ms. Davies' children (played by Connor Jameson Casey, Bergman Freedman, Colin Wheeler, Turner Birthisel) and, as you might imagine, Peter-Pannish inspiration.
Tighe is well cast, as he proves a fine singer and actor, as he crafts a character child-like, but not childish, strong (the point driven home in the musical numbers, "Stronger," Parts 1 & 2) and very much adult as he forges ahead through the "Circus of the Mind" toward his two-pronged goal-a successful play, a happy life. But best of all, Tighe is not overbearing-he does not, like Davidson's Hook, devour a stage, and that's good casting for this production, as the play really isn't about Barre, it's about everyone's struggle to balance brusque reality with our yearning for wonder.
This reviewer was particularly impressed with the maturity and talents of the child actors who had a considerable amount of choreography and songs to sing, and acquitted themselves admirably.
Davidson, who also played Barrie's alter-ego, Capt. Hook, was the scene stealer (as he often was on "Hollywood Squares" back in the day) , and clearly a favorite of the audience as he seamlessly toggled between Hook and Frohman. Christine Dwyer as Sylvia brings considerable power and presence to a role that is somewhat 2-dimensional, i.e. the lonely but plucky widow, as in her solo performances, "All That Matters," and "Sylvia's Lullaby."
"Finding Neverland"'s artistic team of Scott Pask (Scenic Designer), Kenneth Posner (Lighting), Jon Driscoll (Projection), Paul Kieve (Illusions), Daniel Wurtzel (Air Sculptor) and the Production Resource Group (Flying Effects), do yeoman's service transforming the Hippodrome stage into 19th century London, the Llewelyn Davies home and backyard, Kensington Gardens, the home of Mrs. Du Maurier (Karen Murphy), and let's toss in roiling skies and waters, the Duke of York's Theater, and a shimmering, besparkled whirlwind that becomes the gateway to Neverland.
When you have a play that involves someone dying of "consumption," complete with bloody hankerchief, you wonder how many laughs there will be, but there are plenty. Look for a uproarious game of toss-the-toupee involving the wonderfully stuffy Lord Cannan (Noah Plomgren), and the rather "interesting relationship" between Porthos (Sammy), the Barre's dog, and Mr. Henshaw (Dwelvan David), who has the unenviable job of playing a dog in the Duke of York theater performance of Barre's play-"Peter Pan," the play within the play which bookends the entire Hippodrome production. Perhaps as a form of theatrical compensation, Mr. David is awarded the biggest laugh of the entire production in his response to whether his belief system includes "faeries."
"Finding Neverland" continues its run at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw Street, now through Sunday, July 2nd, with shows at 8 p.m. weekdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $42-$188.25 and are subject to change. For single tickets, call 800-982-ARTS; for online purchase, go to BaltimoreHippodrome.com or Ticketmaster.com. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel