Review: Once ‘Finding Neverland’ gets its wings in 2nd act, this musical can fly
At first, Tinkerbell is a little sluggish and doesn’t move anywhere close to the speed of light. But by the time “Finding Neverland” gets down to its far more enjoyable second act, this touring musical about the origins of “Peter Pan” reaches a healthy emotional velocity. I was flat-out bored by much of the first 90 minutes of the show, which opened Tuesday for a two-night run at the Saroyan Theatre, but once the post-intermission action began, it’s as if someone threw needed fairy dust over the proceedings.
Thoughts on the production:
Related story: 5 Things to know about the national tour of ‘Finding Neverland’
The storyline is sweet. Was J.M. Barrie, the creator of “Peter Pan,” really as kindhearted, generous, spirited and, well, peppy as he’s made out to be in this adaptation? It’s hard to know, but I suspect the reason the categorization goes down so easily is that we want to believe. (And, yes, that’s a “Peter Pan” reference.) Mark Bacon, tackling the role that Matthew Morrison played on Broadway, makes an endearing nice guy (and has a strong voice to match). As the story opens, Barrie has a big case of writer’s block, and though he’s already rich and famous as a playwright, his creative well has run dry. Enter four rambunctious young brothers and a chance encounter at London’s Kensington Park. Their imaginations of the boys — who are accompanied by their recently widowed and free-spirited mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (a graceful Josephine Florence Cooper) — inspire Barrie to branch out into pirates, canine childcare workers and ticking alligators.
I liked Mia Michaels’ choreography in the first few ensemble numbers. The visual language of the production (which was directed in New York by Diane Paulus) is intriguing. The cast members move at times almost like marionettes. There’s a great moment when Barrie rips a piece of paper in two, and the ensemble members seem to mirror the tear. There’s lots of strutting, exaggerated back bends, jerky movements and a strangely compelling, bouncy energy. In numbers like “Imagination” and “The Dinner Party,” it feels like a smashup of Victorian and post-Impressionism sensibilities.
I didn’t like Michaels’ choreography after that. So I’m fickle. What felt fresh at the beginning becomes rote and distracting. There are moments later in the show when the choreography still works — in the buoyant “What You Mean to Me,” sung between Barrie and Sylvia — but, overall, the concept outwears its welcome.
The dog is bountiful. His name is Oscar, and he’s huuuuge. He plays Barrie’s Golden Doodle, Porthos, and he’s very well trained. Wouldn’t it be funny if all actors got treats onstage for doing a good job, in full view of the audience?
The grandmother is a standout. Desiree Dillion plays Mrs. Du Maurier with the right mix of cynicism and exasperation. (And her vocals are great, too.)
I’m so-so about “Finding Neverland’s” music and production design. Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy’s music and lyrics just didn’t connect. Most of the songs are bland. And the projections (designed by Jon Driscoll) try too hard. In one nighttime street scene, the moving clouds are nice, and the full starry night looks good, but then we have to top it off with a full-fledged, sci-fi worthy nebula. Too much.
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Then again, some of the staging is delightful. My favorite moment is in the iconic nursery when Barrie’s own imagination takes flight. Actors dressed in black arrive to hold the children aloft, making them “soar,” while maids wave pillows like Vegas showgirls. With the dark clothing, white nightshirts and Russell A. Thompson’s lighting design, the illusion of flying is magical.
What a way to go. Finally, “Neverland” offers a one-for-the-books death scene that is simply gorgeous. A combination of wind machine, glitter, a knowledge of aerodynamics and a wispy piece of fabric conveys a sense of grandeur and loss. People come and go, but Peter Pan lives forever.