It’s telling that the Best Picture Oscar-nominated Finding Neverland scored not a single Tony nomination when set to music on Broadway in 2015. Despite a number of memorable moments (and an Act One finale that may well inspire longer, louder, more deserved cheers than any in recent memory), Finding Neverland The Musical substitutes broad comedy, generic songs, and cartoonish supporting characters for the subtlety and depth that made Finding Neverland The Movie one of 2005’s most acclaimed films.
Movie and musical do share the same basic storyline.
Celebrated author J.M. Barry is inspired to create Peter Pan thanks to a chance meeting with the recently widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four tween boys, his creative juices revived by encouraging the second youngest, Peter, to rediscover joy in his own powers of imagination.
Book writer James Graham makes it clear from the musical’s opening number (the full-cast “Welcome To London,” added to the touring production now playing at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts) that there will be none of the nuanced shadings of David Magee’s Academy Award-nominated screenplay (adapted from Allan Knee’s workshopped play The Man Who Was Peter Pan), James’s hurt, hardened, achingly lonely wife Mary appearing mid-song as a comic caricature of her movie self, though far from the musical’s last.
Whether these changes were made in hopes of avoiding any suggestion of impropriety between James and the boys, only the musical’s creative team can say. Whatever the reason, the result is far more conventional storytelling minus the step-by-step bonding between Depp and a brilliant 12-year-old Freddie Highmore as Peter that gave the movie such poignancy and heart.
In their place are extended backstage sequences featuring one theatrical caricature after another, puns that fall flat, and musical numbers (“Play” in particular) that seem tacked on in order to give Finding Neverland’s ensemble something to do other than simply act the parts of over-the-top actors.
Trying this hard for laughs makes Sylvia’s (spoiler ahead) illness seem awkwardly sudden, prompting an eleventh-hour tonal shift that would be less uncomfortable had the creative team, director Diane Paulus included, gotten the tone right from the start.
That’s not to say that Finding Neverland doesn’t have its plusses.
Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy’s ‘80s/‘90s pop songs may come across anachronistic and lyrically uninspired, but you’re likely to leave the theater humming the catchiest of them including “Stronger,” a 1988 Olympics-ready power ballad that starts off as James’s solo and ends as a full-cast-astride-ship’s-riggings showstopper that prompts record-breaking pre-intermission cheers.
Other ahh-worthy moments include Sylvia’s four boys taking flight without a single cable in sight, James finding sudden inspiration for a captain’s hook and a fairy seen only as a point of light, and James and Peter’s tear-inducing “When Your Feet Don’t Touch The Ground.”
In the musical’s most nuanced role, Christine Dwyer’s Sylvia not only resembles the film version’s Kate Winslet, she bestows upon the single mom warmth, gravitas, humor, heart, and absolutely glorious vocals.
Even minus movie James’s depth, Billy Harrigan Teague gives stage James everything you could ask for in a musical theater star—looks, charm, voice, and acting chops.
Ben Krieger’s Peter proves particularly touching in an Act Two scene opposite Tighe, Finn Faulconer scores bonus points for his banjo-strumming George, Mitchell Wray and Jordan Cole are marvelous too as Jack and Michael, and Sammy (Porthos) may well be the most huggable shaggy dog ever. (Krieger and Faulconer flip-flop roles at certain performances, and Tyler Patrick Hennessy and Colin Wheeler may step in as assorted Llewelyn Davies boys.)
Tom Hewitt (Charles Frohman) and Karen Murphy (Mrs. du Maurier) make the most of their two-dimensional roles (and Hewett does gets to do some delicious scenery chewing as Captain Hook), but Crystal Kellogg is sidled with a Mary transformed into not only a harridan but a cheater.
Choreographer Mia Michaels has Broadway-caliber triple-threats Christina Belinsky, Cameron Bond, Sarah Marie Charles, Adrianne Chu, Calvin L. Cooper, Dwelvan David, Nathan Duszny, Victoria Huston-Elem, Kellogg, Thomas Miller, Noah Plomgren, Corey Rives, assistant dance captain Dee Tomasetta, Lael Van Keuren, and Matt Wolpe kicking up their heels in several energetic dance sequences.
Scenic designer Scott Pask, costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb, lighting designer Kenneth Posner, sound designer Jonathan Deans, projection designer Jon Driscoll, and music director Ryan Cantwell make Finding Neverland quite stunning to see and hear, with special snaps for the shadows backing the Peabo Bryson-Regina Belle-ready “All That Matters” and for the sheer gorgeousness of Sylvia’s final exit.
Mia Walker is associate director. Dance captain Melissa Hunter McCann, Connor McRory, and Matthew Quinn are swings. Additional credits go to music supervisor Fred Lassen and orchestrator Simon Hale. Kelsey Tippins is production stage manager and Jose Solivan is company manager.
I can only imagine how Finding Neverland might have turned out had its creative team given their source material the respect it was due. In defter hands, it might have turned into something as exquisite as the film that was its inspiration.
Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through August 31. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7:30. Saturdays at 2:00 and 7:30. Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30. Reservations: 714 556-2787
March 21, 2017
Photos: Carol Rosegg