BWW Review: FINDING NEVERLAND at Theater League
Broadway Across America's "Finding Neverland" opens as a wonderful possibility, yet refuses to soar as we dare to hope it might. "Neverland" is a pretty darn good show imbued with magical moments, yet somehow falls short of the special experience it might have been.
"Finding Neverland" is based on an excellent 2004 film of the same name that itself spins a highly selective account of the relationship between the Scottish playwright James M. Barrie and the Lewellyn Davies family. Barrie is, of course, the creator of "Peter Pan" the boy who refused to grow up and the "Lost Boys" of "Never Never Land." The five Llewelyn Davies boys were claimed to have been the inspiration for Peter and his crew.
"Finding Neverland, the Musical" relates the tale of widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four boys. The show presents Sylvia as a member of the British upper classes who struggles in opposition to the Victorian pretensions of her mother Emma DuMaurier.
Mrs. DuMaurier is alternately concerned that her daughter's relationship with the married J.M. Barrie will damage her remarriage prospects and that her health cannot stand up to the friendship. In the musical (unlike the film), a fictional doomed romantic relationship does develop between James and Sylvia.
And through "Uncle Jim's" relationship with the boys, the idea for "Peter Pan" does emerge pushed with pressure applied by American Producer Charles Frohman supposedly under threat of bankruptcy.
"Finding Neverland the Musical" ought to be great, but the formula driven book and stylized choreography along with the "put the ballad here" score leaves the "heart" that this show should be brimming over with strangely absent.
The cast and technical design of this "consciously designed hit show" save the evening. Will Ray as James Barrie has an awesome set of pipes. Lael Van Keuren as Sylvia is incandescent. She squeezes every possible ounce of emotion out of her songs and her ascent to the heavens in Act II is one of the more memorable effects to be seen on a stage.
John Davidson at age 76 in the dual role as American Producer Charles Frohman and Captain Hook in James' mind is excellent. He hasn't lost a step from when I last saw him in "I Do, I Do" at the St. Louis Muni over 30 years ago. Outstanding is the extended first act finale with Davidson and the chorus of pirates that evolves in Barrie's mind from a park to a pirate ship.
My favorites bit in the show are the ukulele accompanied "We're All Made of Stars" sung by the boys half way into Act II and the "Imagination" number.
Elements of the show are true history. The Llewellyn Davis boys were finally orphaned in 1910, and were supported for the rest of their childhoods by James Barrie.
Sir James was, as best can be determined, a Llewelyn Davies family friend. He became acquainted with the family in the late 1890's. Barrie did meet several of the boys at Kensington Garden Park with their Nanny while walking and playing with his Saint Bernard dog. Peter was an infant in a stroller.
Barrie later met the parents at a party in 1898. Sylvia's people were writers and actors. When "Peter Pan" premiered in 1903, the father (lawyer Arthur Llewelyn Davis) was still alive and likely in attendance. He died of a mouth cancer in 1907.
Sylvia passed of a cardio-sarcoma in 1910. The boys were old enough by then to have served four years later in World War I. Two lost their lives.
Charles Frohman, the producer, appears to have not been in much danger of a bankruptcy. He was already successful from Cincinnati, Ohio, America beginning in 1892. London was a secondary front for him. At one time, his many running productions employed as many as 700 actors at any one time.
Since, you are unlikely to delve as deeply into this story as I have, I cannot help but recommend "Finding Neverland" to you. It is a pleasant, well produced, if unspectacular musical theater experience.
"Finding Neverland" continues through Sunday, March 4 at the Municipal Auditorium Music Hall. Tickets are available at https://theaterleague.com/kansascity/ or by telephone at 816-421-7500.
Photo courtesy of Broadway Across America.