BWW Review: STRONG DIRECTION MAKES AUDIENCES BELIEVE IN FINDING NEVERLAND at Cincinnati Aronoff Center For The Arts
Theatres around the country have been worried about shrinking audiences as their core patrons age and the younger crowds prove difficult to draw. The elusive Millennial crowd, they say, prefers to stay at home. They occupy themselves with social media, eschewing the crowds and the ticket prices for entertainment that can perfectly fit their interests and pocketbooks. But, the Aronoff's Broadway in Cincinnati series seems to have cracked the code to getting younger audiences-bring in shows that appeal to them. So simple!
Cincinnati's Aronoff Center for the Arts has curated a season that should work like a charm, bringing in literal busloads of the next generation of theatre lovers. Shows like Wicked, the upcoming A Christmas Story, School of Rock, Aladdin, and the currently playing Finding Neverland, all draw the 65 and younger set like magnets. Upon exiting last Tuesday's performance, I even heard a woman exclaim, "That was perfect for every age!" and I thought, "You said it, lady!"
Finding Neverland, with a book by James Graham and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, is based on the 2004 film written by David Magee, and the play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, by Allan Knee. It tells the story of J.M. Barrie, a famous playwright of the moony Scottish school of fiction called Kialyard, and his friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family. Barrie's enduring masterpiece, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up is the familiar and fantastical tale of fairies, pirates, and flying boys, that was born from this relationship.
Recent adaptations of Peter Pan tend to focus on the whimsical aspects of Barrie's tale, but there is an undercurrent of sadness, loss, and injustice that runs throughout the original. Upon seeing it, George Bernard Shaw said the play was "ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people." Graham's book for Finding Neverland sticks to the trend in scrubbing clean the "grown-up people" parts of Barrie's story. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The story is simplistic, but extremely satisfying. Plot points can be seen from a mile away, but the audience seems to take comfort in the predictability.
Graham's sugary-sweet book tries to create conflict by imagining Barrie's struggles with an oppressively serious and doubtful world that refuses to "believe" in his vision for a play that inspires and empowers children (and adults) to never grow-up. He finds his strength in a beautiful widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and her four precocious boys. The boys, he discovers, have recently lost their father, and Peter Pan is born out of the flights of imagination they take together, healing their broken hearts and reinvigorating his creative spark in the process.
The true story of Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family is not nearly as tidy. In Finding Neverland, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, the husband of Sylvia and father the four magical boys, is conveniently killed off before they even meet Barrie. In reality, he would hang out with the whole family for several years before Arthur's death. Barrie's "horrible" wife has an affair with a comical clown, paving the way for a tender, picture-book romance between Barrie and Sylvia. It was all a little TOO perfect, but the young teenage girls sitting next to me were positively swooning from beginning to end. The story is so overwhelmingly perfect, predictable, and satisfying that Shaw might not approve, but any audience seeking distraction, romance, and happy endings (as young audiences often do) certainly will.
The real J.M. Barrie was a diminutive man (5'3") with a large mustache whose relationships with children, both real and fictional, have been known to raise eyebrows- so much so that Nico Llewelyn Davies (the fifth son who was excluded from Barrie's work), in his adulthood, felt it necessary to defend his guardian saying, "I don't believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call 'a stirring in the undergrowth' for anyone-man, woman, or child...He was an innocent-which is why he could write Peter Pan."
Finding Neverland's J.M. Barrie, played by uber-talented Cincinnati Conservatory of Music graduate Billy Harrigan Tighe, is sans mustache, ridiculously tall, young, handsome, nimble as a sprite, and as innocent and charming as a newborn puppy. We don't see a whiff of controversy here as he brings young Peter out of his despair over the loss of both of his parents. We are spared from the reality that the real Peter Llewelyn Davies definitely grows up, and lives and dies tragically. He resented the unshakable notoriety Barrie's play forced on him and was ultimately stung by his exclusion from Barrie's will. (Barrie's fortune went to his secretary.) The truth of Barrie's effect on the Llewelyn Davies family is rife with tragedy and mystery, but that is for another day and another play.
The real strength of this production lies in the incredible staging by director Diane Paulus, as she injects the "grown-up people" aspect back into a squeaky-clean script. The quick pacing, tight scene changes, interesting stage pictures, and stunning choreography by Mia Michaels, along with the strong performances from an incredibly talented cast, all combine to make this a must-see production.
The show clips by at lightning speed, but you are not left behind. Paulus keeps the show engaging from beginning to end, infusing fleeting moments of danger and whimsy through vaguely nightmarish and fantastical images. Dancers create strange and beautiful angles as giant red balloons, and men on penny-farthing bicycles sail by. Torturous pirates turn a simple park bench into a tossing ship as J.M. holds on for dear life.
But the most striking visual of the show was the startling sadness of a lonely piece of fabric twisting in the glittering wind. The theatre is silent and the stage is empty as the image is held for just right amount of time for the audience to reflect on their own personal losses. Any longer and the mood would plummet into tragedy. After this moment fades, Paulus masterfully lifts the audience back up, knowing our hearts will never be quite as whole as they were at the outset of our adventure. In the end, we all had to grow up just a little bit --but not enough to make us stop believing. She leaves us with plenty of pixie dust in our pockets.
Finding Neverland runs at The Aronoff Center for the Arts through Nov. 19th
Go here for tickets or more information. Or call: 800-294-1816.
PHOTO CREDIT: Carol Rosegg and Jeremy Daniel