BWW Review: FINDING NEVERLAND National Tour Comes Home
Book by James Graham, Music and Lyrics by Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy, Based on the Miramax Motion Picture written by David Magee and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee; Directed by Diane Paulus, Choreography by Mia Michaels; Music Director, Ryan Cantwell; Scenic Designer, Scott Pask; Costume Designer, Suttirat Anne Larlarb; Lighting Designer, Kenneth Posner; Sound Designer, Jon Driscoll; Illusions, Paul Kieve; Air Sculptor, Daniel Wurtzel; Flying Effects, Production Resource Group; Production Stage Manager, Kelsey Tippins
CAST: Billy Harrigan Tighe, Christine Dwyer, John Davidson, Karen Murphy, *Turner Birthisel, *Connor Jameson Casey, Wyatt Cirbus, Bergman Freedman, *Tyler Patrick Hennessy, *Colin Wheeler, Christina Belinsky, Caitlynn Caughell, Sarah Marie Charles, Adrianne Chu, Calvin L. Cooper, Dwelvan David, Nathan Duszny, Victoria Huston-Elem, Melissa Hunter McCann, Connor McRory, Thomas Miller, Noah Plomgren, Matthew Quinn, Will Ray, Kristene Reese, Corey Rives, Dee Tomasetta, Matt Wolpe (*at this performance)
Performances through August 20 by Lexus Broadway In Boston at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 800-982-2787 or www.BroadwayInBoston.com
Finding Neverland was born across the river in Cambridge at the American Repertory Theater three years ago, but has settled in for a fortnight in the downtown Boston theater district as part of the national tour running through April, 2018. Concluding the Lexus 2016-2017 Broadway In Boston season, the production at the Boston Opera House features revisions from its move to Broadway, as well as additional alterations that Director Diane Paulus made to tighten the musical for its cross-country trip. Broadway veterans Billy Harrigan Tighe (J.M. Barrie) and Lynnfield native Christine Dwyer (Sylvia Llewelyn Davies) headline a multi-talented ensemble cast which also features John Davidson in the dual roles of Barrie's producer Charles Frohman and Captain James Hook. Half a dozen boys alternate performances as the four Llewelyn Davies children who inspired Barrie to write his signature play Peter Pan.
When I saw the world premiere of Finding Neverland at the A.R.T., it's storyline, uplifting score, and imaginative stagecraft combined to make it a magical experience for me. Would the revisions alter that, or could the fresh ideas compete with my fond memories? Although the emotional highlights of seeing the show for the first time could not be replicated (you can only have a first impression once), the shared experience of being in the audience as others were delighted by those elements allowed me to enjoy them anew. It doesn't hurt that the actors look like they're having a marvelous time on the stage, having the chance for some genuine "play" while putting on the play.
After applauding the merits of Director Paulus, much credit goes to the inventive choreography of Mia Michaels. Without benefit of any engineering devices, Michaels designs movements to simulate flying that I would argue are more joyful and aesthetic than people dangling from wires and wearing harness contraptions. In at least four production numbers, the entire company is in constant motion, providing a feast for the eyes while illustrating the theme of the song. However, on a smaller scale, augmented by Kenneth Posner's lighting design, the choreography helps to deliver a powerfully moving message in a touching pas de deux by Barrie and Sylvia ("What You Mean to Me"). The music (Gary Barlow) and lyrics (Eliot Kennedy) trend toward pop, encouraging toe-tapping and bouncing in your seat, with at least a few that are ripe for singing on your way out of the theater. Conductor Ryan Cantwell leads eight musicians in the pit who produce a full sound that belies their number.
Finding Neverland is the back story to the inspiration for Peter Pan, following the relationship between playwright Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family. As he observes the boys playing make-believe, Barrie begins to get in touch with his own long-lost inner child, rediscovering the joys of discovery and play (as a verb). The recently-widowed Sylvia and her four sons are finding their collective way through grief, with the not-always-welcomed assistance of her mother, the dour and imperious Mrs. du Maurier (played by a spot on Karen Murphy) whose distaste for Barrie is palpable. However, he gives as much as he gets from Peter (Connor Jameson Casey), George (Colin Wheeler), Jack (Turner Birthisel), and Michael (Tyler Patrick Hennessy), helping to reshape their world after serious tumult.
The talents of the four boys are considerable, especially when you consider that they (and Wyatt Cirbus and Bergman Freedman who did not perform on opening night) each cover one of three of the four roles at any given performance. They are triple threats who sing, dance, and act like a family, endearing themselves without being cloying. As the senior member of the troupe, 75-year old Davidson still has a mellow voice and divot-sized dimples. He captures the swagger and menace of Captain Hook, perhaps aided by the wig and costume, better than the edginess of the producer Frohman, and I found myself distracted by his anachronistic, long white ponytail when playing the latter. Deserving of mention in the acting troupe for the play-within-the-play are Matt Wolpe, Dwelvan David, and Corey Rives. Although I loved the actor who played Barrie's dog at the A.R.T., Pothos is now played by Sammy, a genuine member of the species.
J.M. Barrie's fictional Neverland, second star to the right, is still a place where dreams are born. All it takes to get there is imagination, the willingness to believe, and a little bit of magic. Start your journey at the Boston Opera House. Adults and children welcome.