BWW Review: FINDING NEVERLAND Sprinkles Fairy Magic at Saenger
Once upon a time, there lived a playwright who never wanted to grow up. And so, he wrote a play about a boy who never does.
FINDING NEVERLAND, the semi-biographical backstory of Peter Pan didn't receive critical acclaim while on Broadway, but the current touring musical has all the charm and bittersweet overtones that made the 2004 film starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet so charming. Now on stage at the Saenger Theatre through Sunday, May 14, this excellent production brings forth a moving presentation filled with hope, heartbreak and a childlike yearning to travel to that second star to the right.
As soon as the stage lights dim, we know we have been brought to Neverland as Tinkerbell, in the form of a bright, tinkling ball of light, shines through the ornate curtains. The curtain goes up to reveal a scene straight out of PETER PAN, but suddenly it's brought to a halt. This scene is far too soon, you see, says playwright J.M. Barrie, who explains the reason for FINDING NEVERLAND is to explore the inspiration behind the classic play with precocious children, a shaggy dog, glittery pixie dust, and some truly stirring moments in tow.
This fictionalized account of Barrie's life opens at the turn of the 20th century in London, with the writer at odds with the circumstances of his life. Unhappily married to an uptight social climber, and struggling with churning out his next comedy of manners, Barrie seeks solace in the greenery of Kensington Gardens. There, he meets the lovely widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four boys. Charmed by the family's presence, Barrie feels the stirrings of creativity once more, which would lead him to write his masterpiece. Through the power of Barrie's imagination, and their make-believe games of pirates, Indians, and crocodiles, the four boys would come to inspire the legendary Lost Boys, but one boy, the introspective son Peter, was destined to become Barrie's muse.
But just like childhood, good things can't last forever. The townspeople begin whispering about Barrie's unusual friendship with Sylvia, Mrs. Barrie is caught dallying around with the buffoonish Lord Cannan, and there is resistance from Barrie's producer who doesn't believe theatre can be for children. What's more, Sylvia develops a terrible cough, signaling that she's about to embark on an awfully big adventure.
Brilliantly directed by Diane Paulus, FINDING NEVERLAND is perfectly balanced with traditional theatricality and decadent illusion, creating an unforgettable performance that will remain with you long after you leave the theater. While James Graham's book may not be factually accurate at times, it's utterly faithful to the spirit of reliving one's childhood.
Billy Harrigan Tighe's performance made the character of Barrie relatable, as he struggles to find happiness within his work. Here is a lost man, whose inner child wishes to burst free. In a wonderful twist, his inner pirate is also displayed in the form of Captain Hook, urging Barrie to let go of the restraints marriage, career, and society have on him.
At the heart of the story is the sweet love between Tighe and Christine Dwyer as Sylvia. Together they have that near-Disney magic chemistry that is so rarely seen on stage. Notably, their duet, "What You Mean to Me," will move the hearts of dreamers. Dwyer is decidedly delightful, displaying exactly the right mixture of motherly tenderness and youthful exuberance. Her penultimate scene will pull heart-strings or have audiences outright weeping.
There's also outstanding work by Rory Donovan as Barrie's American producer Frohman, who is quick with the quips but has no time for fun and games when there is money to be made. Hewitt also is deliciously amusing when he doubles for the villainous Captain Hook.
Karen Murphy does a lovely job as the no-nonsense Mrs. du Maurier, Sylvia's mother, who has no tolerance for her daughter engaging in make-believe with a married playwright.
Members of the acting troupe include Dwelvan David as the pompous Mr. Henshaw; a Shakespearean actor who feels slighted at portraying Nana, the dog; Matt Wolpe as the humorous melodramatic Mr. Cromer; and Thomas Miller as Elliot, a long-suffering stage manager, who resembles the pirate Smee if you squint your eyes enough. Sammy brings the awws as Barrie's faithful canine Porthos.
Unsurprisingly, the children in the show, led by Ben Krieger as Peter, are standouts across the board. Playful, and unruly, they help Barrie find the missing pieces in his life, and in turn, he allows them to behave like the children they are, rather than having them grow up too quickly.
There is much spectacle in FINDING NEVERLAND to be had. Choreography by Mia Michaels (from So You Think You Can Dance) brought the show to life with quirky turns and flights of fancy with revolving doors and spinning clocks during such moments as "The Dinner Party," "Circus of Your Mind" and "Believe." The production team created a marvelous world both real and imaginative with its visionary sets, lavish costuming and enchanting illusions. Whether it's conjuring up a pirate ship, a stormy sea or seeing Peter Pan fly, this show is pure fairy magic. Special mention goes to Daniel Wirtzel, credited in the program as the "air sculptor," who created a genuinely tender effect using only air, glitter, and a piece of chiffon.
Finding Neverland is sentimental, heartwarming, nostalgic and enchanting all at once. It's an experience you won't want to miss, and will always remember.