Finding Neverland, book by James Graham, Music and Lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. Directed by Diane Paulus. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
The cast of Finding Neverland [Billy Harrigan Tighe and Lael Van Keuren, center]; photo: Jeremy Daniel
"Boys should never be put to bed. . .they wake up a day older."
John Davidson as Charles Frohmann; photo: Jeremy Daniel
It would seem, from James Graham's script for "Finding Neverland" that James M. Barrie, by 1903, had never grown a day older and it would seem from the rather frenetic creation that is Barrie in this musical, that he also never sleeps. As a character he really truly is a character. A married man he falls in love with a young widow whose mother is a high society acquaintance of Barrie's wife and he also falls in love with the widow's four young children, all boys. From this quintet he gains inspiration for his next play, soon to be called "Peter Pan," loses his wife and becomes the unofficial father figure in the boys' lives.
The musical has a few flaws. One of them is the Brit-Rock-inflected score and another is the lyrics - if you can hear them - with rhymes such as young and fun. Only the vowel actually rhymes and that barely counts (it would have passed, though, if used once but it comes along nearly a dozen times as I recall). On the flip side the musical has some high energy, spectacular staging and a cast that is almost too good to be true.
John Davidson, former tv variety show star and Disney film actor, plays producer Charles Frohmann whose feisty American personality stuns his British company. In this show Frohmann sings a great deal of the time and it is wonderful to hear Davidson deliver on his songs. In the middle of the most difficult musical phrasing he pulls things together to render an understandable "Circus of Your Mind." His natural warmth comes through the acerbic dialogue and gives Frohmann a delicious edginess.
He also takes on the phenomenal role of Captain James Hook, a part that Davidson takes to new heights with his swagger and his deeper voice and his flashing eyes that twinkle even half-way back through the orchestra section in the mammoth Proctors Theatre in Schenectady. Hook and Barrie close out the first act with a wonderful duet, made wonderful by the musical staging from the creative mind of Mia Michaels.
Barrie is played by Billy Harrigan Tighe, a tall, handsome man with a sweet tenor voice whose natural sparkle comes in very handy as his body is tossed in the air, thrown across the set, tumbled over bodies and furniture as he performs a song. Without a doubt this is the most energetic, acrobatic musical since Barnum or the first tented edition of Cirque de Soleil. There are times when Tighe is so bombastically moved around the large stage that only his costume and his voice place him. He is matched in this by the ladies and gentlemen of the ensemble as Michaels choreographs a world into the confines of a structured British park. Tighe's performance as Barrie is everything except emotional and that is more a topic for the authors than for the people who move the people.
He is devoted to the Llewelyn Davis children, four fatherless boys being raised by a widowed mother. Played by Lael Van Keuren, Sylvia is a sweet and solidly romantic while being whimsically practical. Van Keuren handles her music with beauty and her final scene and dance with utter grace and a surprising agility. The children were terrific. They are basically triple cast and I don't know which of them were on, but if the others in each role are as good as the four I saw, then the show has a youthful dynamic that is very special indeed.
John Davidson as Captain James Hook; photo: Jeremy Daniel
Billy Harrigan Tighe and Kristine Reese; photo: Jeremy Daniel
Some excellent performance are delivered by Dwelan David, Matt Wolpe, Mary Kate Hartung, Noah Plomgren, Karl Skyler Urban and Sammy who plays Barrie's dog Porthos. In particular Sylvia's mother, the aristocratic Mrs. DuMaurier, played by Karen Murphy, is a darkly delicious character. Murphy fools us when she begins to sing late in Act Two and turns into a nearly operatic mezzo soprano with guts and heart and a very moving interpretive skill. Murphy is a treasure and she alone would make this show worth seeing.
Barrie's wife, Mary, is played with great beauty and insensitivity by Kristine Reese. In a script that doesn't generally approach real emotions Reese instills Mary with a fabulous level of reality that helps move the first half of the show through the fiction of the facts.
Technically the show is a wonder, a magical show that keeps you riveted to your seats while causing you to wish that fairy dust was real, that imagination could allow you to soar as Peter would in every production of the play. The illusions by Paul Klave, the air sculpting by Daniel Wurtzel, the set design and projections by Scott Pask and Jon Driscoll, the lighting design by Kenneth Posner and the costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb are exceptional separately and together. Instead of being a very decent second-rate musical show, the evening turned into an enthralling spectacle of literary history, a place where imagination illuminates what imagination is and should be at all times.
Diane Paulus and her team have successfully created a world of sheer imagination, one that creates the illusion that we are in on the invention of one of the twentieth century's best works for theater, books, movies, musicals, children, adults and fairy-folk everywhere: J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan.
Finding Neverland plays at Proctors Theatre, 432 State Street, in Schenectady through December 10 only. For information and tickets go to www.proctors.org or call 518-346-6204.