The origin of the universally beloved story was explored in the 2004 Miramax film of the same name, written by David Magee and based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee. The creative team of James Graham (book), Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy (music and lyrics), Mia Michaels (choreography) and Paulus puts on an enchanting show about imagination and the power of believing by giving us a window into Barrie's imagination. The ingenuity of the designersScott Pask's sets (sometimes surreal, sometimes realistic), Suttirat Larlarb's period costumes, and magical effects by lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg, air sculptor Daniel Wurtzel and projection designer Gilles Papaintakes us to another time and place where suspension of disbelief is the currency for admission.
Barrie had been a successful playwright, but in the peppy opening number of Finding Neverland, he is in a creative dry spell and under pressure from his American producer Charles Frohman (Michael McGrath) to do "Better." The members of the theater company cheer him on, and his wife Mary (Jeanna de Waal) thinks that "Rearranging the Furniture" might jog his brain into action, but Barrie (Jeremy Jordan) opts for a walk in Kensington Gardens with his playful dog Porthos (Thayne Jasperson). While sitting on a bench conversing with Frohman, three young boys run around them with abandon and imaginary weapons until their mother appears on the scene to wrangle them and her straggling fourth son. It isn't exactly an "aha" moment for Barrie, but the audience knows that Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her sons Michael, Jack, George and Peter are about to change his life, even as he brings a new outlook to theirs ("Believe").
From that point in time (clocks are a constant presence on backdrops and Frohman likes to remind Barrie that "The clock is ticking, tick tock..."), the playwright finds respite with the Llewelyn Davies clan, escaping into a world of fantasy adventures that helps them work through their grief following the death of their father and husband, while freeing him from the bonds of Victorian conventions. As Barrie gets in touch with his inner child, his burgeoning joie de vivre manifests a stark contrast with the serious, brooding Peter (wise-beyond-his-years Aidan Gemme). His brothers embrace the make-believe more quickly, and Sylvia even gets into the games, to the chagrin of her disapproving mother Mrs. du Maurier (an imperious Carolee Carmello), but Peter eventually comes around, especially when Barrie encourages his nascent attempts at playwriting.
The thread of the storyline that portrays Barrie as childlike and Peter burdened by adult concerns is woven throughout the book and the songs. It makes it seem perfectly natural that Barrie would create his namesake as a carefree boy who won't grow up and give the Llewelyn Davies brothers a role model to emulate. In addition to the clock metaphors, Graham drops in casual references to other things that will later appear in Peter Pan, among them a tiger lily, shadows, and a silhouette of the producer's cane handle resembling a hook, and the lyrics in "Neverland" introduce its location beyond the second star on the right.
With one or two exceptions, the musical numbers help to define the characters and advance the story. The individual vocal performances are stunning (Kelly in "All That Matters," Jordan in the first act finale "Stronger"), and the ensemble is replete with great voices. Carmello and de Waal soar, while it is fun to watch McGrath selling his songs as both Frohman and his alter ego James Hook. The children are accomplished singers and Gemme in particular has a strong, pure sound. Music director/conductor Mary-Mitchell Campbell brings out the fullness and vibrancy of Simon Hale's outstanding orchestrations and leads more than a dozen musicians on the usual strings, reeds, brass, percussion and keyboards, with a penny whistle added for flavor.
As much as I enjoyed the Barlow and Kennedy score, it is Michaels' inventive, stylized contemporary choreography that makes the musical numbers sparkle, aided and abetted by the athletic, rubber-limbed dancers. It's hard to know where to look first in "We Own the Night (The Dinner Party)," "Circus of Your Mind" and "Play," while the eye is drawn to the mesmerizing pas de deux of shadows cast by a ghost light in "What You Mean to Me." There is no rigged flying in Finding Neverland, but the act is so artfully suggested by leaps, throws and carries, that you don't miss the wires. Michaels challenges us to believe that Peter Pan is flying around the children's nursery and Melanie Moore convinces us with her spirited, joyful balletic moves that she is airborne.
Jordan is utterly likable and charming, especially when he's singing or dancing, playing make-believe with the kids and perfectly maintaining Barrie's Scottish brogue. He and Kelly blend beautifully in song, but they need to develop tighter chemistry; they do well when the Barrie-Llewelyn Davies relationship is platonic, but the temperature of their ardor needs heating up when the romance is developing. She conveys Sylvia's love for her children and captures her new-found happiness, but little of the sadness you might expect from a recent widow. One of Kelly's great moments is also one of the show's emotional high points, but I won't spoil it other than to say it is a breathtaking combination of achievements.
As it stands now, Finding Neverland is thoroughly entertaining and drives home its themes of the importance of imagination and the healing power of believing in your dreams. There is just enough of the Peter Pan story to satisfy fans who have been enthralled by it since childhood, including the plea for the audience to clap to revive Tinkerbell (still emotionally stirring after all these years), and showing how it came to be enriches the memories and deepens the attachment. Paulus has repeatedly demonstrated her ability to put her imagination on display with amazing stagecraft and her streak remains intact. However, arguably more important, she engages our imaginations to lead us on the journey to find our own Neverland.
Finding Neverland performances through September 28, 2014, at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or www.americanrepertorytheater.org.
Based on the Miramax motion picture by David Magee and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee. Music and Lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, Book by James Graham, Presented by Special Arrangement with Harvey Weinstein; Scenic Design, Scott Pask; Costume Design, Suttirat Larlarb; Lighting Design, Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design, Jonathan Deans; Projection Designer, Gilles Papain; Air Sculptor, Daniel Wurtzel; Illusions, Paul Kieve; Orchestrations, Simon Hale; Vocal Designer, Annmarie Milazzo; Music Director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell; Associate Music Director, David Gardos; Associate Director, Nancy Harrington; Production Stage Manager, Chris Zaccardi; Music Supervisor, David Chase; Choreography, Mia Michaels; Director, Diane Paulus
Cast (in order of appearance): Jeremy Jordan, Michael McGrath, Jeanna de Waal, Alex Dreier, Hayden Signoretti, Sawyer Nunes, Laura Michelle Kelly, Aidan Gemme, Carolee Carmello; Ensemble: Courtney Balan, Dana Costello, Rory Donovan, Gaelen Gilliland, Thayne Jasperson, Josh Lamon, Melanie Moore, Mary Page Nance, Stuart Neal, Emma Pfaeffle, Jonathan Ritter, Tyley Ross, JC Schuster, Paul Slade Smith, Ron Todorowski; Dance Captains/Swings: Julius Anthony Rubio, Jaime Lynn Verazin