Do you believe in dreamers?
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
Review by John Olson
Peter Pan asks the audience if they believe in fairies. Finding Neverland asks if we believe in dreamers – specifically J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan’s author. A biography based on the 2004 film (starring Johnny Depp as Barrie) as well as on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, by Allan Knee, it presents us with man-boy Barrie and his friendship with the family who inspired him to create the boy who wouldn’t grow up. We’re shown Barrie as a man who loves fantasy and playing games of imaginary adventures, and for that reason enjoys the company of the young sons of widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies more than he seems to appreciate his childless marriage with wife Mary. A successful playwright, Barrie is in a creative slump as the play begins. He meets the Llewellyn Davies family in a nearby park, London’s Kensington Gardens, and the boys help him re-connect to his true self – his imagination and love of adventure that he had lost amidst the demands of adulthood and success.
There are a number of ways one could go with this theme. One wonders how unhappy Barrie must have been in his marriage to find the company of a young family of boys and their widowed mother more appealing. And certainly adults can relate to a certain mourning for the loss of childhood and the onset of the pressure of adulthood. Finding Neverland steers clear of anything too dark in the material, though. Director Diane Paulus has conceived the piece as a most family-friendly entertainment. The first act is played quite broadly and comically. Even Mary Barrie’s affair with another writer is done as a bit of buffoonery. Paulus and choreographer Mia Michaels deliver kinetic treats – with dance and other movement that is unpredictable and chaotic without being messy. There’s even a real dog on stage, Sammy, playing “Porthos,” the model for Peter Pan’s Nana. James Graham’s book doesn’t always earn the emotion of the big musical numbers. Case in point – there’s a production number called “Play” in which the Peter Pan cast, which had been exceedingly skeptical of the play, all too suddenly come to accept it and embrace the inner children as they prepare to open the play. Even so, it’s all presented so appealingly – with scenic designer Scott Pask and projection designer Jon Driscoll taking us to London circa 1904 as well as Neverland itself and throwing in some effective abstract images as well – that it wins us over.
Even if the book is a little thin, we buy into it based on the strong performances of this touring cast. Kevin Kern, who understudied the role on Broadway, is a terrifically appealing Barrie. He has a strong singing voice, sharp comic timing and ability to navigate the balance between physical comedy and the more heartfelt moments of Act Two, as Sylvia’s illness becomes apparent. Christine Dwyer is a completely lovable Sylvia with a gorgeous voice. One of the great pros and unsung heroes of Broadway – Tom Hewitt – is in the cast as Barrie’s theater producer Charles Frohman (doubling as the Captain Hook of Barrie’s imagination). He’s delightful as both – showing a wry and self-deprecating humor as Frohman and more broadly comic chops as Hook.
The Llewelyn Davies children – played on opening night by Ben Krieger (Peter), Finn Faulconer (George), Mitchell Wray (Jack) and Jordan Cole (Michael) are all real finds. They’re cute and funny without being cloying. They share roles with each other as well as with Eli Tokash (who covers George, Peter and Jack) and Tyler Patrick Hennessey, who plays Jack at some performances. Joanna Glushak is initially steely as Sylvia’s mother, though warms up at the ending as she finally accepts and appreciates Barrie’s role in her family.
While Paulus and her design team create a lot of magic on stage, they know when to keep things low tech. The musical’s penultimate scene has the Peter Pan cast performing the play in the ailing Sylvia’s bedroom. Realistically enough, there are no wires for flying. The actors carry Peter and Wendy as they fly. Other artists might have suspended reality enough to suspend Peter and Wendy from wires, but Paulus and company smartly use the occasion to reinforce the theme that imagination is the best special effect of all.
Finding Neverland continues through December 4th at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map). Tickets are $34-$115, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). For more information, go to BroadwayInChicago.com or FindingNeverlandMusical.com (Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Kevin Kern (J.M. Barrie), Christine Dwyer (Sylvia Llewelyn Davies), Tom Hewitt (Charles Frohman, Captain Hook), Joanna Glushak (Mrs. DuMaurier), Jordan Cole, Finn Faulconer, Tyler Patrick Hennessy, Ben Krieger, Eli Tokash, Mitchell Wray (The Llewelyn Davies boys), Crystal Kellogg (Mary Barrie, ensemble), Noah Plomgren (Lord Cannan, ensemble), Thomas Miller (Elliott, ensemble), Dwelvan David (Mr. Henshaw, ensemble), Matt Wolpe (Mr. Cromer, ensemble), Lael Van Keuren (Miss Jones, Emily, ensemble), Victoria Huston-Elem (Miss Bassett), Dee Tomasetta (Peter Pan, ensemble), Melissa Hunter-McCann (Acting troupe Wendy), Cameron Bond (acting troupe Captain Hook, ensemble), Corey Rives (Albert, ensemble), Sammy the dog (Porthos), Sarah Marie Charles, Christina Belinsky, Adrianne Chu, Calvin L. Cooper, Josh Drake, Connor McRory, Matthew Quinn (ensemble).
Ryan Cantwell (conductor, keyboard), Valeria Gebert (asst. conductor, keyboard), Greg Germann (drums), Laraine Kaizer, Andrew McCann (violin), Ryan Claus, Steve Leinheiser (reeds), Sean Murphy (bass), Nicholas Difabbio (guitar), David Manning (synthesizer, acoustic guitar, mandolin), Bill Harrison (acoustic bass, electric bass)
behind the scenes
Diane Paulus (director), Mia Michaels (choreography), Scott Pask (scenic design), Kenneth Posner (lighting design), Suttirat Anne Larlarb (costume design), Jonathan Deans (sound design), Richard Mawbey (hair and make-up design), Jon Driscoll (projection design), Stewart/Whitley (casting), Simon Hale (orchestrations), Fred Lassen (music supervision), Ryan Cantwell (music director), John Miller (music coordinator), Paul Kieve (illusions), William Berloni (animal trainer), Tim Burke (local music coordinator), Melissa Hunter McCann (dance captain), Dee Tomasetta (asst. dance captain), Tyler Garstka (animal handler), David Chase (original music supervision, dance and incidental musical arranger), Annmarie Milazzo (vocal design), The Booking Group (tour booking), Nancy Harrington (artistic associate), Mia Walker (associate director), Jose Solivan (company manager), Seth F. Barker (production stage manager), Genevieve Kersh (stage manager), Alex Eberle (asst. stage manager), Harvey Weinstein (executive producer), Seth Wenig (production supervisor), Carol Rosegg, KSP Images (photos)