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Finding Neverland
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Author:  balletomaniac [ Wed Apr 29, 2015 10:18 am ]
Post subject:  Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland
Lunt-Fontanne Theater
New York, New York

April 22(M), 2015
-- by Jerry Hochman

Although at times it feels like it, I don’t only attend dance performances. Last week I had the pleasure of attending Finding Neverland, a new Broadway musical based on the 2004 film.

This is a show that can appeal to anyone, and it had the very live and eclectic audience at the performance I attended in love with it from the first minutes. It’s got wit, sparkle, creativity, wonderful voices, an interesting story, humor, stars, dance, beautiful sets and scenic design, and, most significantly, an exposed heart. It’s a show that demands to be hugged.

That being said, there are negatives that can’t be ignored. The characters, attractive as they may be, are essentially one-dimensional, and the play on emotions is transparent and predictable. The dancing – though it’s well choreographed – can’t compare to (and shouldn’t be compared with) the glorious An American in Paris and On the Town. The songs don’t reach the heights they aspire to, and I found Act II to be more sappy than necessary. All this is not enough to convert a positive review into a negative one, but it’s cause for some measure of disappointment.

Finding Neverland is the story behind the real-life inspiration for Scottish writer and playwright Sir James M. Barrie’s most successful play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Never Grew Up, and the power of imagination that brought it to life. Within this framework are two dominant and intertwined themes: Barrie’s dissatisfaction with his professional and personal life, and his relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four sons: George, Jack, Peter, and Michael. The musical takes some liberties with the ‘facts’, but this license isn’t abused. And it must be emphasized that this is an entertainment, not a psychological study. We don’t know why Barrie rebels against formality and things-as-they-should-be, or why he seemed fixated with children’s play. It doesn’t matter.

After achieving a measure of success in London, Barrie most recent play is poorly received. Nevertheless, his producer, Charles Frohman, a pompous and out-sized American, urges Barrie to create another play in the mold of his prior successes. When the lights dim, the audience is teased by a darting, flickering glow of light (Tinkerbelle, as a warm-up act).

As the story begins, Barrie, played by Matthew Morrison, sits on a park bench attempting to write the new play as Frohman wants it to be, but his mind wanders as he sees some boys (the Llewelyn Davies boys) playing, and he envisions a somewhat androgynous boy costumed like, well, Peter Pan, whirring around him in a blur of fairy dust. If this were a ballet, Barrie would be your stereotypical ‘dreamer/poet’. The scene quickly changes to Barrie’s home, where his relationship with his wife Mary is somewhat icy. (Since, in reality, Barrie’s marriage to Mary was reportedly never consummated, some measure of iciness would not be a surprise), and then to a stodgy, upper-crust ‘celebration’ of Barrie’s dismal new play, where Frohman, genially portrayed by Kelsey Grammar, is first introduced.

Returning to his park bench, Barrie is enraptured by the Llewelyn Davies boys playing ‘pirates’, and meets their mother, a widower, rendered by the mellifluous and consistently delightful Laura Michelle Kelly, and one of the first act’s strongest songs, “Believe,” is introduced. (In reality, Barrie first met Sylvia while Sylvia’s husband was still alive; he died some 10 years afterward.) Barrie, unbeknownst to Mary (played by Teal Wicks as part shrew and part harpie), invites Sylvia and her boys to a dinner party organized by his wife, and their presence is unwelcome – but it provides the setting for “We Own The Night,” a hilarious romp in which Barrie imagines all the attendees frozen in place except him, Sylvia, and the boys – one of whom discovers that the hair on the head of a particularly pompous guest, a Lord Cannan, isn’t his. Eventually, following her divorce from Barrie, Mary weds Cannan.

The relationship between Barrie and Sylvia continues and deepens, and Barrie becomes the boys’ surrogate father. But the relationship is considered scandalous by proper society. Nevertheless, Barrie, a boy at heart, and the children relish it.

The sequence that follows is the heart of the story, as Barrie scraps his ‘new’ play and develops one based on his imagination, which in turn is fueled by his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys, and particularly the somewhat introverted and sensitive Peter. It is also the highpoint of the musical, as three naysayers – Frohman, Mary, and Sylvia’ mother Mrs. Du Maurier (Carolee Carmello) attempt to suppress Barrie’s imagination, but Barrie conjures a larger than life ‘Captain James Hook, to insulate and propel him to continue to dream. The three consecutive musical numbers, “Circus of Your Mind,” “Live by the Hook,” and “Stronger” are gloriously theatrical and brilliantly staged, and leave the audience cheering as Act I ends.

Act II, however, is somewhat ponderous, weighed down by Sylvia’s illness and death, and several undistinguished songs – except for a strong duet between Barrie and Sylvia (“What You Mean to Me”). Frohman reluctantly agrees to produce the play, and it becomes a success. The wonderful finale, where the stars of Barrie’s new play, on its opening night, travel to Sylvia’s home (and deathbed) to reenact excerpts from it, leaves the audience dewy-eyed.

Morrison is a wonderful, if somewhat wooden, James Barrie, with a surprisingly (if you’ve only known him from Glee) rich voice, and Kelly, who has appeared in many West End and Broadway productions, a winsome Sylvia. But the show’s centerpiece, if not its soul, is Kelsey Grammar, who owns the stage whenever he’s on it, and brings it to life. The characters he plays, Frohman and the Captain Hook of Barrie’s imagination, are cartoonish, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s intentional. (In reality, Frohman was a distinguished producer on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a passenger on the Lusitania when it was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat, and died after reportedly giving up his lifejacket, and place in a lifeboat, to a sleeping infant. His last words were a paraphrase from Peter Pan. Memorial services were held for him by the star actors he promoted in cities across the U.S., and at both St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.)

Grammar’s Frohman is superficially stuffy and gruff but good-hearted – sort of a cross between Phineas T. Bluster (for non-Baby Boomers, a character from the television program, Howdy Doody), Santa Clause, Frazier Crane, and a hot-air balloon. His Captain Hook is over the top with a touch of class – or subtle with an anvil, depending your point of view. Regardless, Grammar’s performance is theatrical magic.

The choreography, by Mia Michaels, is better than serviceable. It doesn’t break new ground, or bring highbrow dance to Broadway, but it tells the story in an essential way, since the libretto, by James Graham, while liberally sprinkled with in-jokes, clever wordplay, and sight-gags, is in other respects relatively flat. The opening number, “All of London Is Here Tonight,” is a prime example. It’s not easy making characters who are supposed to be stuffy move in a way that enhances their prim and proper starchiness, but that doesn’t make them look grotesque. Michaels comes close to overstepping, but doesn’t. And “Believe,” the rapturous number in Act I, is beautifully choreographed. Where things go somewhat awry is when there’s less of a crowd. Children pretending to fly, with arms outstretched like airplanes, can get tiresome quickly.

Director Dianne Paulus moves things along at a fairly rapid clip. Her staging of “The Dinner Party”/”We Own the Night” converts what might be a dull scene into a riotous one, and “Circus of Your Mind” is staged brilliantly – Barrie’s three nemeses converging seriatim and ultimately converging on his mind like a three-ring doomsday circus. And the closing image – Wendy (an engaging Emma Pfaeffle) lighting a center stage ‘air tornado’ with the edge of Barrie’s script, which instantly bursts into flying bits of gold dust as Peter Pan rises from the floor and flies off to Neverland (echoing the image at the play’s beginning) – is breathtaking.

However, “Finding Neverland” is a very introspective musical. It’s about feelings. And that’s fine – certainly Barrie’s real-life story and childlike imagination lend themselves to a play that feels, deeply. But a Broadway musical requires something more upbeat – something that the music and lyrics, by Gary Barlow and Eliott Kennedy, do not provide. The songs aren’t bad – but they’re not exceptional either – although anything sung by Ms. Kelly sounded better than it was. And the play’s ‘anthem’, “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” instead of being upbeat and hopeful, is closer to a dirge.

Yet, despite these flaws, “Finding Neverland” is overwhelmingly accessible and ultimately joyous. Despite my whining, I found myself enjoying it a great deal, and, like the audience reaction at the opening of the original Barrie play, was moved by the enthusiasm of the younger viewers. So when you see “Finding Neverland,” and you should, bring children. They’ll love it. And despite its flaws, you’ll find yourself figuratively hugging the show and its characters for making you feel sad and good at the same time. And it’ll hug you back.

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