Entertainment » Theatre

Finding Neverland

by Kevin Taft
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Feb 23, 2017
Finding Neverland

Truth be told, I haven't been a fan of the trend on Broadway to take a popular movie and make it into a stage show. I so often long for the days when original musicals lit up the stage, and with "Hamilton" and "Dear Evan Hansen" taking the Great White Way by storm, I've been privately rejoicing. But there are always exceptions to that rule and the magical, infectious, and moving "Finding Neverland" is one of them.

Based on the film written by David Magee and the play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan" by Allan Knee, the book of the musical is by first-timer James Graham, with music and lyrics by pop star Gary Barlow (British boy band Take That) and songwriter Eliot Kennedy. It tells the story of how playwright J.M. Barrie came to write his classic play "Peter Pan" after meeting a widowed mother and her four children in Kensington Park.

Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) is an amiable man with a stuffy wife (Crystal Kellog) and a demanding producer (Tom Hewitt) who is after him to deliver him a hit play -- and fast. When he meets Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) and her children Peter (Ben Frieger), George (Finn Faulconer), Jack (Mitchell Wray), and Michael (Jordan Cole) he is bewitched by their ability to dive into their imagination and have grand adventures in the most mundane of places -- all while their loving mother watches on.

The one child who isn't as enthralled by all of this fake magic is Peter, who has been hit the hardest by his father's death and is growing up too fast. The five souls quickly become the inspiration for Barrie who swiftly becomes a part of the family's life, much to the chagrin of his annoying wife and Sylvia's prudish mother Mrs. Du Maurier (Karen Murphy).

As Barrie and the Davie's family learn more and more to use their imagination, Barrie's creativity soars. This not only affects his writing, but in realizing what he does and does not want in his life. Soon enough he's prepared to battle his demons and take on his destiny. But the world isn't all magic and fairies, and Sylvia's sudden illness threatens to curtail the burgeoning relationship she has with Barrie, as well as her children's future.

While there is an inevitable tragedy in the story of "Finding Neverland," the style and feel of the show hearken back to musicals like "Mary Poppins" or something from Rodgers and Hammerstein. Director Diane Paulus cranks up the over-the-top comedy (mostly by the supporting cast) which at first seems like it will be a distraction, but instead, it adds to the fun of a show that will eventually have its share of heartbreaking reality.

The set design by Scott Pask calls to mind the colorful but flat backgrounds of plays from long ago, with the addition of projections and clever set pieces. Choreography by "So You Think You Can Dance" judge Mia Michaels is bright and purposeful. It doesn't just feel like unnecessary steps and anachronistic dance moves. It is joyful and fanciful in equal measure, whether it is more elaborate company choreography, or something as elegantly simple as the dance between our two leads during their duet "What You Mean to Me."

Speaking of the music, the songs here are catchy and memorable and will have you humming the melodies long after you leave the theater. This is a welcome relief as musicals with truly remarkable numbers have been few and far between over the past decade or so.

But as much as the show is a joy to watch and hear, the performances are what drive it all home to our hearts. Tighe plays it handsome and earnest as Barrie with a pure and powerful voice. Dwyer's vocals had a few opening-night jitter missteps, but the richness of her voice still delivers, and her characterization is heartwarming.

All four boys are totally charming with Krieger as Peter being the expected standout. His heartbreaking duet with Barrie "When Your Feet Don't Touch the Ground" turned the audience into a teary mess, and deservedly so.

The other big standout was Hewitt in the dual role of Barrie's cranky producer and also Captain Hook of Barrie's imagination. Hewitt does a splendid job of giving both men a valid distinction while nodding to each just as he inhabits the other. Supporting cast is stellar all around with every actor bringing the show more and more to jubilant life as it reaches its emotional end.

Despite the tears, this show is the definition of enchanting leaving audiences elated when the final notes are sung and the last of the night's sparkles settles to the floor. Don't miss it.

"Finding Neverland" runs through March 12 at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. For information and tickets, call 323-468-1770 or visit www.hollywoodpantages.com.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.


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