BWW Review: FINDING NEVERLAND at Broward Center for the Performing Arts
The Broward Center for the Performing Arts presents the Broadway Across America production of the musical Finding Neverland featuring music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kenned, and a book by James Graham. The musical stage adaptation is inspired by the 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, and his 2004 film adaptation Finding Neverland.
Set in the late 1800s, Finding Neverland tells the incredible story behind one of the world's most beloved characters - Peter Pan. Somewhat unhappily married playwright J.M. Barrie struggles to find inspiration for his next play until he meets four Young Brothers and their beautiful widowed mother. Spellbound by the boys' enchanting make-believe adventures, he sets out to write a play that will astound London theatergoers. With a little bit of pixie dust and a lot of faith, Barrie takes a monumental leap of faith, leaving his old world behind for Neverland where nothing is impossible and the wonder of childhood lasts forever.
The story line roughly follows actual events in the life of Scottish novelist and playwright J.M Barrie (Sir James Matthew Barrie) who was born on May 9, 1860. Though he wrote many successful novels and plays, Barrie is best remembered as the creator of Peter Pan. Just as in Finding Neverland he met the Llewelyn Davies boys while in London. There they inspired him to write Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up - a fairy play about an ageless boy and an ordinary girl named Wendy who have adventures in the fantasy setting of Neverland. Barrie unofficially adopted the Davies boys following the deaths of their parents; and before his own death in 1937, he granted the rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, which continues to benefit from them today.
The beloved fantasy of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and the island of Lost Boys lives on in the hearts of millions, and probably always shall. This production of Finding Neverland is visually thrilling with its' use of projections, special effects, characters flying through the air, wonderful scenic design, and impressive production values. These things combined with a compelling written story are enough to please almost anyone.
More discerning theatre goers may take issue with an eclectic musical score, forgettable melodies, overwrought choreography, and scattered moments of over-acting. With such a good script, one merely wants the story told and sung cleanly. Billy Harrigan Tighe has a lovely, clear sound to his singing voice and an unashamed honesty in his portrayal of J.M. Barrie that speaks to the youthful heart of the character. He has nice chemistry with Christine Dwyer as the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. Their beautifully sung second act duet "What You Mean To Me" is the musical highlight of the show. Dwyer's performance at the end of the show is so understatedly poignant that one almost wished the story ended there.
More important than Tighe's chemistry with Dwyer is his chemistry with the four Llewelyn Davies children. With them he is endearingly playful - exactly what is needed to break whatever spell of sadness remains for them over the loss of their father, and forge a bond born of a mutual love of make believe. The four children, as well as their pet dog, steal bits of scenes here and there with their undeniable charm and talent.
Karen Murphy is memorably imperious as Sylvia's privileged and protective Mother, Mrs. Du Maurier. Rory Donovan is solid as the common and pragmatic promoter Charles Frohman. He then pulls out all the stops as Captain James Hook, showing off quite a singing voice as he swaggers about the stage. Matt Wolpe is very funny as the put-upon character actor Mr. Cromer. Though he is comedically heavy-handed, he is on the right side of the line of over-acting the part. Cast members who land on the wrong side of that line are Corey Rives as the butler Albert, and Dwelvan David as Mr. Henshaw. Though it may be what is directed, Rives chews the scenery in his brief scenes, and David plays his scenes more to the audience than his fellow cast members. This is especially annoying in a second act entrance where he looks straight out to us with a huge Cheshire Cat grin awaiting the sight-gag laugh for his costume. Again, whether directed or not, the bit is sophomoric.
There are some costuming choices such as upper-middle class men in public without a hat, and their female counterparts without gloves that are historically inaccurate. There are also some passing jokes that are historically inaccurate as well, such as a reference to the stages of grief (not established until 1969 by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying), the use of the word "fairy" to refer to a gay man, and one of the characters mouthing the phrase "What the f-ck!" that give one pause, but must simply be grouped into our collective suspension of disbelief I suppose. As for me, I spent much of the show trying to discern a common musical theme or element, development of a previously stated melody, or continuity in style of composition or orchestration. As hard as I looked for a thread of musical connective tissue, I could not find one; and I felt I did not know the composers or their influences at the end of the show any better than when it started.
Choreographically this show is a monumental undertaking. Every moment is clearly staged and planned, even to the last background ensemble response. The problem with this is that it limits the organic process of the actors, and becomes stilted. Some scenes such as those that exist in J.M. Barrie's imagination can and should be unrealistically fanciful and/or dramatic. With that in mind, I really enjoyed the staging of "Hook" and "Stronger". At times the choreography becomes too much however as in the dining room scene. The problem really exists in the ensemble choreography. Their synchronized and stylized movement in response to the center of focus at hand actual steals focus rather than frames it. And ironically the cleaner and bigger they are in executing their dancing, the more distracting it is in that moment. It feels like the director let an indulgent choreographer run away with a non-dance centered show. Let the story speak for itself, and the choreography help tell that story.
Finding Neverland is about holding fast to the child inside of us that believes in magic - and magic really only works when it is paired with heart. The same heart that makes us unashamedly cry out "I Believe" and claps till Tinker Bell is resuscitated before our very eyes. If you can look past cumbersome choreography, the fantasy of J.M. Barrie's Neverland awaits you at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
The musical Finding Neverland made its' world premiere in 2012 at the Curve Theatre in Leicester. A reworked version of the show then made its world premiere in 2014 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In March of 2015 that production transferred to Broadway to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. The Broadway production closed on August 21, 2016 after 565 performances.
Composer and lyricist Gary Barlow and Eliot Kenned are British born pop musicians, who both worked as judges on the TV show X Factor (UK). Kenned has contributed songs to film soundtracks such as Spice World, Stepmom, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, Racing Stripes, and Bridge to Terabithia. Barlow is one of Britain's most successful songwriters, having written fourteen number one singles and twenty-four top 10 hits.
Presentations at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts are sponsored in part by the State of Florida, the Department of State, the Division of Cultural Affairs, the Florida Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Support is also contributed by the Broward Performing Arts Foundation, Inc... The Riverwalk Arts & Entertainment Consortium is a cultural partnership between the Performing Arts Center Authority, the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale, Florida Grand Opera, Fort Lauderdale Historical Society and The Historic Stranahan House Museum. It is supported by the Broward County Board of County Commissioners as recommended by the Broward Cultural Council and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention Visitors Bureau. The Broward Center for the Performing Arts houses the Au-Rene Theater, the Amaturo Theatre, and the Abdo New River Room, and has affiliated venues at the Parker Playhouse, the Rose and Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center, and the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center.
Finding Neverland is scheduled to appear June 13-25, 2017 in the Au-Rene Theater of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $40.25. The Broward Center for the Performing Arts is located in the Riverwalk Arts & Entertainment District at 201 SW Fifth Avenue in Fort Lauderdale, FL. For tickets or other information, contact them by phone at 954-462-0222 or online at www.browardcenter.org.
Peter Pan: Dee Tomasetta
Wendy: Adrianne Chu
Captain Hook: Will Ray
J.M Barrie: Billy Harrigan Tighe
Mary Barrie: Kristine Reese
Lord Cannan: Noah Plomgren
Albert: Corey Rives
Elliot: Thomas Miller
Sylvia Llewelyn Davies: Christine Dwyer
Mr. Henshaw: Dwelvan David
Mr. Cromer: Matt Wolpe
Miss Bassett: Victoria Huston-Elem
Mrs. Du Maurier: Karen Murphy
George: Finn Faulconer
Peter: Ben Krieger
Jack: Tyler Patrick Hennessy
Michael: Jordan Cole
Ensemble: Christina Belinsky, Caitlyn Caughell, Sarah Marie Charles, Adrianne Chu, Calvin L. Cooper, Dwelvan David, Nathan Duszny, Victoria Huston-Elem, Thomas Miller, Noah Plomgren, Will Ray, Kristine Reese, Corey Rives, Dee Tomasetta, Lael Van Keuren, Matt Wolpe
Director: Diane Paulus
Hair and Makeup Design: Richard Mawbey
Illusions: Paul Kieve
Air Sculptor: Daniel Wurtzel
Flying Effects: Production Resource Group
Stage Manager: Kelsey Tippins
*The cast and stage manager of this cast are members of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States
**Photo by Jeremy Daniel