By Brad Haynes
The tale of the making of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Finding Neverland, first found its way to the public as a 2004 film with Johnny Depp starring as the author. That film was then adapted, albeit with several starts and stops, as a piece of musical theater, with the finished product containing the music of former Brit boy bander Gary Barlow of Take That & Eliot Kennedy.
Finding Neverland on Broadway was buoyed by the performances of Matthew Morrison, as Barrie, and Kelsey Grammer as American theatrical producer Charles Frohman (the inspiration for legendary pirate Captain Hook). While not exactly a critic’s darling (the original musical was absent of any Tony love during the 2015 season), Finding Neverland went on to run for over a year on Broadway.
Now it is touring the country, and appears to still be working to find itself. The show’s original opening as seen on Broadway has been reworked to give a much more straightforward exposition. For fans of the Broadway incarnation, it appears to be a misstep although newbies to the show will surely not be bothered. What may bother them however is a fairly lengthy, and at times slow-going, first act.
Barrie (played from 6/6-6/9 by understudy Will Ray and from 6/10-6/11 by understudy Noah Plomgren due to the absence of headliner Billy Harrigan Tighe) meets Sylvia Llewelyn Davis (Christine Dwyer) and her boys George (Finn Faulconer), Peter (Ben Krieger), Jack (Mitchell Wray) and Michael (Jordan Cole) while strolling through Kensington Park with his dog. It is immediately noticeable that young Peter has lost his belief in fun since the death of his father, and playwright Barrie takes it upon himself to instill some joy into the lives of these fatherless children.
Professionally, Barrie is working on a new play which Frohman (Rory Donovan) desperately needs as a success for his theater. And on the home front, he is feeling distanced from his social climbing wife.
The musical’s first act primarily serves to set the scene for the development of Peter Pan, but with the exception of Brit pop sounding “Believe” and the haunting “Circus of Your Mind,” there are really no truly memorable musical moments.
In fact, the music in Act 2 isn’t all that much more memorable, yet the plot points all seem to gel by that point, as Barrie falls in line to be the surrogate father the children are so desperately wanting, and Peter Pan becomes a huge success on stage.
When W.C. Fields said, “Never work with children or animals,” he could have been talking directly to the cast of Finding Neverland, where the adults on stage have to contend with both. And it’s not that there is anything particularly wrong with the work of Ray, Dwyer and Donovan.
In fact, Donovan’s take on Frohman, while being significantly younger than role originator Grammer, is consistently entertaining and the voice is great. But Ray and Dwyer, who spend plenty of time on stage with the children, are easily overshadowed by them, particularly when sharing the stage with Krieger as Peter.
The role of Peter is not only vocally demanding, but the nuanced acting required to make the character authentically come to life is impressively delivered by the young Krieger. When he is onstage, no matter how many others share the stage with him, it’s hard to take your eyes off him. He’s that good.
While much of the show’s dialogue, as written by James Graham, feels a little forced, there are certain times when it comes across as truly genuine, and those are the moments to not only watch out for, but be prepared for with Kleenex as well. A few tears just may fall.
Finding Neverland plays the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. through Friday, June 9; at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, June 10; and at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 11. Click here to purchase tickets.