BWW Review: FINDING NEVERLAND Finds Its Wings At The Hobby Center
FINDING NEVERLAND is a fictionalized story of author J.M. Barrie's life at the turn of the 20th Century. His play, Peter Pan, serves as a strong force throughout the storyline, with nods and winks to the origins of the beloved tale. It seems that the story would bounce lovingly into the arms of Broadway: magical elements? Check. Lovely visuals? Check. The whimsy of the story of Peter Pan and how he came to be? Yes, it's there. But FINDING NEVERLAND is an odd animal. The first half hour is bland, well into the first act. But just when you think this is the most vanilla soft-serve musical ever, the show decides to kick it up a notch. The first act needs retooling, which is saying something because the show has been tweaked and smoothed over more than once already. But the second act? A disarming must-see.
Adapted from the 2004 Johnny Depp film, FINDING NEVERLAND focuses on J.M. Barrie, a celebrated playwright who is stuck in an aimless marriage. He meets the lovely widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and her lively boys in the park and they form a fast friendship, with Barrie being the loving father figure that's missing in the boys' lives and the boys providing childlike wonder and inspiration for Barrie. Peter, Sylvia's oldest son, becomes a muse for Barrie, inspiring him to write Peter Pan.
The first act chugs along with a lackluster book by James Graham. Dialogue is predictable and you can see punchlines coming a mile away. The music is not bad, but not great, with mostly forgettable tunes by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. Several songs have lyrics that are so simplistic in their patterns that you can guess the rhyming word long before it escapes the singer's mouth. Exceptions to this plight are "Circus of Your Mind" and "Stronger", songs that give the show a good goosing and have us wanting more. The second act is much more pleasing, opening with the funny "The World Is Upside Down" in which the acting troupe laments the unusual aspects of Peter Pan. "What You Mean To Me" is a soft, honeyed number between Barrie and Llewelyn that makes you want to be in love. "Play" is a crowd-pleaser with the four boys giving a natural and endearing performance.
Directed by Diane Paulus, the cast is generally great. Billy Harrigan Tighe plays J.M. Barrie with warmth and humility, and his tenor voice is lovely to behold. Christine Dwyer is lovely and likable as Sylvia and sings with emotion and clarity. The children are thankfully natural in their acting with no scenery-munching to be had. Karen Murphy is perfectly cast and excellent as Sylvia's crabby mother Mrs. Du Maurier. Understudying for Broadway vet Tom Hewitt, Matthew Quinn is effective as the theatre producer Charles Frohman, but I wanted more from him as Captain Hook. His Hook was rather laid back with a touch of valium; the part calls for an arresting and commanding portrayal. Crystal Kellogg is appropriately shrill and snobby as Mary Barrie, with a voice that rings out to the back of the theatre. A standout in the cast is Matt Wolpe, who plays Mr. Cromer and Michael in the actor's troupe. Wolpe is hilarious and engaging, an actor who makes it all look like good fun. And the dog! Nana is well-trained as a canine can be. Every musical should have a dog in it.
Choreography by Mia Michaels doesn't really work for this particular show. Michaels has proved herself to be a genius in other projects; I personally adore her work on the television show So You Think You Can Dance. But in FINDING NEVERLAND the steps are too simple and rather uninspired with lots of head snapping and over-the-top posing.
Visual elements of the show are strong. Projection designer Jon Driscoll bumps the production up to a whole other level with his artistry throughout the show, but especially in "Stronger" when the back of the stage becomes a thrashing ocean. Illusionist Paul Kieve adds lots of magic and excitement, particularly towards the end; the effects are stunning and heart-stirring.
While FINDING NEVERLAND has its flaws, there are spell-binding moments that literally take your breath away. As we clapped to save Tinkerbell's life I felt like I was about eight years old again. It's a good feeling.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel
FINDING NEVERLAND plays Apr 25, 2017 - Apr 30, 2017
For tickets: http://thehobbycenter.org
Broadway at the Hobby Center / Sarofim Hall