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BWW Review: A Whimsical and Breathtaking FINDING NEVERLAND at The Oncenter Crouse Hinds Theater

BWW Review: A Whimsical and Breathtaking FINDING NEVERLAND at The Oncenter Crouse Hinds Theater
The company of Finding Neverland. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The touring production of Finding Neverland has now soared into Syracuse's Oncenter Crouse Hinds Theater as part of the Famous Artists Broadway Theatre Series. With an impressive book by James Graham and powerful music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Elliot Kennedy, this inspiring musical is pure fun and magic on stage.

Like the movie of the same name, this musical tells the story of the Scottish creator of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie (Jeff Sullivan), and the family that inspired the classic tale of the boy living in Never Neverland with the lost boys, Captain Hook, and a little pixie named Tinkerbell. The sets, the costumes, the music, the acting, the energy - the list goes on. All of the elements bring you back to your childhood and the time you first heard the story of Peter Pan.

A widow named Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Ruby Gibbs) and her four boys Peter (Ethan Stokes), George (Paul Schoeller), Jack (Caleb Reese Paul), and Michael (Josiah Smothers) meet J.M. Barrie in Kensington Gardens. Interacting with the boys enables J. M. Barrie's childlike qualities to come out from hiding. That "silly" and imaginative playtime is just the right inspiration for the new play that Barrie's producer Charles Frothman (Conor McGiffin) is pressuring him to write. After all, The Acting Company is awaiting a new script. During one of the visionary moments, Captain James Hook tells Barrie there must be a villain in the play (the captivating musical number "Hook"). The playtime with the children, the playwright's budding romance with their mother Sylvia, and other people that surround Barrie inspire him to create all of those familiar and favorite characters in the story of the boy that refuses to grow up.

It is not all happy child's play though. The story, like most fairytales, still features tragedy. The reality of life is that children will grow up, sickness occurs, loved ones die, and heartbreak and loss are bound to happen. The beautiful and inspiring part of this story is that despite the struggles, loss, and sickness that is happening in the land of the grownups, Sylvia continues to encourage imagination, creativity, and play in the lives of her four boys. This, in turn, inspires J. M. Barrie to unleash his inner child and writing a story for every generation.

Strong actors bring the special story to life.

Jeff Sullivan delivers a moving, passionate, and breathtaking performance as J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. In numbers such as "My Imagination," "Neverland," and "When You're Feet Don't Touch the Ground" his expressive and astounding vocals enrapture you into this captivating story. Sullivan's chemistry, comedic timing, and constant energy results in magic on stage. His onstage chemistry with the younger actors makes numbers such as "Believe" and "The Dinner Party" memorable. His emotional performance of "Stronger" is both a favorite and a standout.

Ruby Gibbs lights up the stage with her powerful vocals, expressive facial expressions, and charming personality as she portrays Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, a powerful woman who takes care of her children and does what she believes is best for them - allowing them to believe, imagine, and continue to be children even though their family has recently faced a loss. Sylvia is a selfless, hardworking, giving, and inspiring mother and woman and Gibbs showcases all these qualities beautifully. Her vocals shine in her solo moments, including the emotional number "All That Matters." Her chemistry with Jeff Sullivan is perfection in numbers such as "Neverland" and "What You Mean to Me."

Conor McGiffin, as Barrie's producer Charles Frohman, steals the spotlight with his spot-on line delivery, comedic charm, and character acting prowess. He entertains in the toe-tapping number "Play," which uses numerous nursery rhymes to encourage the company of actors to find their inner child so they can portray children effectively on stage in Peter Pan. McGiffin also dazzles as that ruthless villain Captain Hook in J. M. Barrie's vision. "Hook" and "Stronger (Part2)" prove to be favorite numbers thanks to McGiffin's powerful vocals and animated performance along with the effortless set transformation by scenic designer Scott Pask. The pirate ship he created is absolutely breathtaking.

The young child actors, of course, stole the spotlight with their adorable stage presence. The night I attended Ethan Stokes took on the role of Peter Llewelyn Davies, the boy that seems to have grown up too soon. In the enchanting number "Believe" Barrie convinces Peter that is fine to pretend, imagine, and create just like Peter's brothers. Ethan has a stage presence beyond his years and delivers an emotional performance alongside Jeff Sullivan in "When You're Feet Don't Touch the Ground." Paul Schoeller took on the role of George, Caleb Reese Paul performed as Jack, and the adorable Josiah Smothers portrayed Michael. They all certainly made the most of their roles and delivered a particularly charming performance of the delightful number "We Own the Night" and the reprise. The four young actors also delivered an emotional rendition of "We're All Made of Stars."

Other standout performances include Josh Dunn in the entertaining role of Elliot who often gets stuck picking up the stage and at times babysitting the children. Dunn's energy and comedic skills are impeccable. Ashley Edler as Mary Barrie, the uptight and conceited wife of James Barrie, beautifully showcases her effortless vocals in "Circus of Your Mind" (Part 2). Melody Rose's passion and energy as Peter Pan is breathtaking.

Marie Choate portrays Wendy as part of the acting troupe. Her performance memorable as she beautifully shows off her dancing skills and Mia Michaels' whimsical choreography. Joshua William Green, as Mr. Henshaw, brings the laughs and Spenser Micetich, as Mr. Cromer, proves to be a standout as well. Emmanuelle Zeesman plays Mrs. Du Maurier, Sylvia's Mother; she delivers a strong and memorable performance that emphasizes her commanding stage presence. The entire ensemble stole the show in many of the big numbers; the chemistry that exists on the stage radiates in their well sung performances.

Not only does this musical feature an engaging story for every generation it showcases some very impressive and visually stunning set designs by Scott Pask, lighting by Kenneth Posner, projections by Joe Driscoll, and Illusions by Paul Kieve. The costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb and hair and makeup by Bernie Ardia are visually stunning and capture each individual character perfectly. The orchestra, under the direction of conductor Patrick Hoagland, plays the inspiring, fun, and emotional music beautifully.

The current tour of Finding Neverland is a definite must-see with it's whimsical, emotional, and resonating story, gorgeous music, impressive actors, and jaw-dropping visual effects. The production sends chills down your spine as it takes you on the journey of how Peter Pan came to be. It is now in my top five favorite productions that I have seen, so do not miss this one. It is magic on stage.

Running time: Approximately two and half hours with one twenty-minute intermission.

Finding Neverland runs through May 30, 2019 at The Oncenter Crouse Hinds Theater in Syracuse, New York as part of The Famous Artists Broadway Theatre Series Broadway in Syracuse. For information and tickets to Finding Neverland, click here. For information on the Famous Artists Broadway Theatre Series Broadway in Syracuse, click here.

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From This Author Natasha Ashley