In Finding Neverland, reality is blurred by imagination as J. M. Barrie, the creator of the characters and the original play version of Peter Pan, struggles with writer’s block as he tries to find inspiration in 1903 London. “Finding inspiration” proves to be a frustrating thing because inspiration generally comes out of the blue, and as Barrie discovers, he finds it not looking for it, but by recognizing it when it comes. It’s a lesson in the creative process that many writers – of books, stories, as well as musicals – can identify with.
Finding Neverland was originally a 1998 play titled The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, based on facts surrounding Barrie’s true-to-life friendship with the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her five young sons. This, in turn, was fashioned into a 2004 motion picture starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, which received widespread praise and seven Oscar nominations.
The musical version, which ran on Broadway for 565 performances beginning in April 2015, was a hit with audiences, but not with critics, who derided its treacly power ballads and bloated $20 million budget, which included “air sculpting” actors aloft instead of using traditional cables and harnesses for the flying sequences. (To be fair, critics were probably taking their anger out on first-time Broadway producer Harvey Weinstein, not as much for being a theater novice but for his notorious casting-couch offenses, which soon made him a show business pariah as well as defendant in a much publicized sex crimes trial that begins soon.)
Drastic changes were made to Finding Neverland, and by the time the current tour took shape, the production had been streamlined, jettisoning the air sculpting and concentrating on the heart of the story, which is always a good thing to do. The result, which is being staged at the Fred Kavli Theatre this weekend by American Theatre Guild, is a Mary Poppins-like fantasy of Edwardian England, dredged in special effects and dreamlike sequences representing Barrie’s thought processes in digging deep into his imagination and remembrances of the magic of his own boyhood.
The bottom line of the musical is that Barrie IS Peter Pan, with the real-life Peter Davies representing his younger self, the boy who refuses to grow up. The relationship is hinted at by the bond Barrie develops with the lad, a bookish recluse forced into sad seclusion by the death of his father, only to be awakened by Barrie’s own youthful personality.
The story could have been just another exercise is cloying sentimentality if it weren’t based in fact. Struggling to come up with a play to satisfy impatient theater owner Charles Frohman, a frustrated Barrie becomes a surrogate father to Sylvia Davies’ four sons after meeting them in Kensington Park. One by one, the iconic elements of the Peter Pan story are introduced: Tinker Bell comes from the reflection of a spoon on the wall at an upper crust dinner party, Captain Hook’s menacing hook is the crooked handle on Frohman’s cane, and so forth. The process is much like Peter and the Starcatcher, the freewheeling non-musical farce that also shows the origins of the Peter Pan characters, but more as a prequel rather than “the creation of” angle Finding Neverland takes. But Finding Neverland is much more enchanting and logical, as Barrie slowly builds his story and then embodies his characters into the stalwart stock cast of actors in Frohman’s theater.
Mark Bacon is wonderful as Barrie, wide-eyed and boyish with a silvery tenor to match. Josephine Florence Cooper is attractive and sympathetic as Davies, and although her singing voice is good, she is unable to fully envelop the more soaring of her ballads. Desiree Dillon who plays Sylvia’s overprotective mother, Mrs. Du Maurier, has a wonderfully operatic voice that we wish we could have heard more of. The delightful Kirk Lawrence plays Frohman and his alter ego, Captain Hook, wisely without the fey foppishness identified with Cyril Ritchard’s inimitable characterization in the 1954 musical version of Peter Pan.
Davies’ four boys are all adorable and excellent singers, especially young Jack Packer, who plays Peter. The others, Brycton Archer, Ashton Heathcoat, and Nicholas Reed, all do a fine job, from their tousled tumbling and shenanigans in playing pirate, to the one quartet number they sing together, “We’re All Made of Stars.”
Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy’s score isn’t as overwrought as cynical critics would have you believe. Some of the songs are marvelous and catchy, especially the show-stopper “Play,” built around a succession of familiar nursery rhymes, and the nightmarish “Circus Of Your Mind,” in which Barrie is attacked on all sides by the villains of his life (Charles, Mrs. Du Maurier, and his shrewish wife Mary).
The song “Neverland” is also good, but not nearly as masterful as its magical counterpart in the 1954 musical, “Never Never Land,” penned by Jule Styne, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden. Two of the best numbers are “My Imagination,” whose introduction is set to the rhythm of a ticking clock, implying the menacing crocodile in the story, and the Act II opener, “The World Is Upside Down,” as Barrie and the boys present their premise to Frohman’s troupe. Of special note in the cast are Timothe Bittle, as Mr. Henshaw, a Shakespearean snob who, naturally, is cast as the dog, Nana, and Nicholas Karl Brown as Elliot, the comical stage manager and gofer who somehow ends up juggling armsful of chairs and the boys at one time.
In an interesting twist, Barrie is roused from his depression by the imagined specter of none other than the villainous Hook, who dares Barrie to challenge the oppressive antagonists of his life by going against conformity, giving him the incentive to fight for his fantasy rather than settle for yet another ordinary play Frohman wants him to write. “Children like to be scared,” Hook tells Barrie. “They just don’t know it yet.” Barlow and Kennedy were keen, however, in composing Frohman’s solo, “Hook,” as a tango, the dance form most associated with Captain Hook in the familiar musical.
Mia Michaels’ choreography is some of the strangest we’ve ever seen on the stage, possibly designed to reflect how a young boy with no experience might fashion it. The dancing in Finding Neverland is more synchronized convulsions than choreography, laden with spastic jerks and bent-backward postures as if it were learned at John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks. After the initial shock of seeing the ensemble behaving in such bizarre mannerisms, the dancing becomes the musical’s most vibrant element, utterly original and fascinatingly compelling.
No Peter Pan story can be without a joyously galumphing dog, and Porthos, a one-year-old Golden Doodle, became an audience favorite, behaving like he, too, had been subjected to the quirky choreography.
Finding Neverland is an unmitigated wonder of music, dance, broad comedy, and pathos, not something easily done all in one package. In the more than one hundred years since his creation first flew through the open window of the Darling children’s bed chamber, Broadway is fortunate that J. M. Barrie, indeed, never grew up.
Finding Neverland plays through Sunday, January 19 at the Fred Kavli Theatre. For showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.