Music and Lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy
Directed by Diane Paulus
Reviewed by David Roberts and Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited
“That isn’t me. (at J. M. Barrie) That’s him. He’s Peter Pan. (Barrie – perhaps only realizing this for the first time, too) He just has my name. And it’s the best present any boy was ever given, anywhere in the world.” (Peter Llewelyn Davies in “Finding Neverland”)
For those who have never grown up and still indulge in imaginative child’s play, conjuring up backyard scenes with swashbuckling pirates or configuring protective forts from blankets and sofa cushions to ward off the enemies – perhaps while babysitting – should quickly head to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre where you will certainly recognize a character who might have encouraged such whimsical behavior. “Finding Neverland” the new musical based on the motion picture of the same name and the play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” is a complicated, interesting, and magical theatrical journey. At a stop somewhere between Alice’s Wonderland and Dorothy’s Oz is where we find Peter’s Neverland. It is a place where you go to escape social pressure, expectations and fears, to learn about hope and courage, but more important a place to heal. The moment you hear the soothing vocal of the incredible Matthew Morrison deliver the intriguing lyrics of the opening number “If the World Turned Upside Down” you connect, understand and start emotional gears that transport you into the heart of J.M. Barrie. So hold on tight, something wonderful is about to take flight.
“Finding Neverland” is the second to none prequel to the story of Peter Pan written to date. The new musical gives the definitive motivation for J. M. Barrie’s writing of “Peter Pan” and authentic connections between the characters in “Peter Pan” and the significant relationships in J. M. Barrie’s life. It is a Broadway musical with heart, soul, and sensibility: the remarkable musical not only entertains, it raises significant and enduring questions about finding ones voice and finding places of ultimate healing in unexpected places.
In “Finding Neverland” J. M. Barrie’s (Matthew Morrison) newest play “The Wedding Guest” is a flop and producer Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer) closes the show with the assurance his playwright prodigy is diligently working on a new play with fresh ideas and a better hope for audience approval. But Barrie’s life is on a downturn: he has no new ideas; his marriage to Mary Barrie (Teal Wicks) is lifeless and spiritless; and his creative imagination has run dry. Clearly “The World Is Upside Down” and the catalyst for this transformation is the family he meets in Kensington Gardens where he goes daily hoping to find inspiration. Barrie knows he has a unique voice and that he has the ability to “fill all the spaces with imaginary places” (from “Believe,” Act I). It is in his relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her four boys – played with exquisite charm by Aidan Gemme (Peter), Christopher Paul Richards (Jack), Sawyer Nunes (George), and Alex Dreier (Michael) – that Barrie discovers “We’re all Made of Stars” and celebrates moments when “We Own the Night.”
There is an important story here that perhaps is exactly what theater audiences need today in our sterile, rule laden, isolated, technical society. It does not take much to ignite your imagination, travel to unforgettable places and face unforeseen dangers that entertain and release everyday anxieties without the help of the latest mobile device, even if only for a moment. If you have lost that ability, do not despair, start searching and you might just find it in “Finding Neverland.”
By no means is this a perfect musical but it is inventive, entertaining and at times it does manage to break down some traditional barriers that often obstruct creativity. The music and lyric by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy are both pleasant and interesting but more so lead the path to the incomparable choreography of Mia Michaels. Ms. Michaels’ signature of “movement with meaning” infuses character and emotion into every choreographed musical number and it does not stop there. Quirky, articulated gestures placed on tag lines, entrances and exits clearly punctuate the present behavior. Matthew Morrison is captivating as he consistently unearths his child within and serves up a remarkable vocal performance exhibiting a definable passion. Kelsey Grammer as the petulant producer Charles Frohman is delightful as he contributes his distinctive comic flair and equally adept when substituting his cane for a “Hook.” Laura Michelle Kelly captures the spirit of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies with immaculate vocals and a character that manages to escape pedestrian and maudlin behavior. Carolee Carmello gives a solid, strong, honest, practical portrayal of Mrs. Du Maurier only teasing us with her underused vocal ability.
Ultimately, “Finding Neverland” is about knowing when to tear down and when to build up, when to risk taking ones feel off the ground and when to be grounded. It is about the important choices we make when creating our imaginary places. J. M. Barrie’s ‘neverland’ is an engaging exploration of humankind’s eternal quest to create and maintain “places” where age, death, disappointment and despair are never welcomed guests.