Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
We are welcomed by a small orb of light that flies frantically around the stage, which we recognize as Tinkerbell, the famous fairy who accompanies the "boy who would never grow up." This, as well as the ending moments of the musical, will be the most spectacular and moving of the evening. In between, this familiar story of the boy who could fly contains eerie reminders that youth fades and tomorrow is never promised.
Many may be familiar with the 2004 film of the same name, starring Johnny Depp in an Oscar-nominated performance as J.M. Barrie; in the touring production, Barrie is portrayed by the beautiful baritone Billy Harrigan Tighe. The Scottish writer has had difficulties finding success as a playwright. Though already married, he becomes friends with a widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (the amazingly talented Christine Dwyer) and her four sons, George, Jack, Michael and Peter, who all grow fond of the man. Barrie develops a particular interest in the young and troubled Peter, for whom he eventually names his next main character. Barrie proves to be a type of surrogate father for these boys, despite the whispering about the appropriateness of his closeness to them and about his relationship with a woman who isn't his wife. Nonetheless, the make-believe stories that he and the boys create will become his iconic work, Peter Pan.
Tony-winning director Diane Paulus helmed this production, but it does not live up to the standard of creative excellence in her previous work, such as the reimagined Pippin in 2013. Finding Neverland has undergone numerous revisions since its original premiere in 2012, with changes in bookwriter, composers and lyricists. Even since the show's Broadway run, a handful of songs have been reworked and even replaced completely, but none of these changes have helped the production, which continues to feel like a collection of parts that don't add up to make a cohesive whole. The most recent book, by James Graham, has wonderful moments throughout that evoke the Peter Pan story that we know will emerge eventually, but it is peppered with humor that does not seem to fit the tone of the production. When Sylvia asks her mother why she is not as free-spirited as she used to be, her mother replies, "I was another person; it was the sixties"meaning the 1860s, but landing oddly.
The score, with music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, has moments of beauty and does not lack for either upbeat songs or power ballads, but the collection amounts to an amalgamation of numerous musical styles, with no cohesiveness. With its rhythmic drumming, one song, "Stronger," could have been lifted from Disney's The Lion King. Choreography is by Mia Michaels, best known for her work on the hit TV show "So You Think You Can Dance," and though some may like her contemporary style, it fits oddly in a show set in the late nineteenth century, feeling more like an MTV music video. The production relies heavily on projections designed by Jon Driscoll, and though beautiful to view, the projections seem to be trying to compensate for the lack of sets on stage. Of the creative team, the most effective contribution comes from Kenneth Posner's lighting design, which effectively articulates the wide spaces of the stage to establish both mood and imagery, creating near the end one of the more moving moments in the production.
The cast is doing the best they can with the material they've been given. Billy Harrigan Tighe's J.M. Barrie is likeable, showing hints of a man who has lived and struggled yet retains a twinkle in his eye. He easily personifies a childlike spirit in an adult body, even though his physical presence and accent are far from historically accurate. While he doesn't resemble Barrie, Tighe makes up for that with a most beautiful and pure-sounding voice. Rory Donovan, in a dual role as theatre producer Charles Frohman and Captain James Hook, does a fine job with a booming baritone voice, delivering the dark humor that feels right for the show. The highlight of this cast is Christine Dwyer as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. Dwyer embodies all of the vulnerability and spiritedness in her character, with a beautiful voice that shines in her ballads. The roles of her four sons are shared among numerous boys in the cast, and the actors at the performance I saw stole the show: Jordan Cole as Michael, Finn Faulconer as George, Tyler Hennessy as Jack, and Mitchell Wray as the world-weary Peter. In the ensemble, Dwelvan David as Mr. Henshaw, a member of the theatre troupe, deserves special recognition. In a smaller role, he commands attention on stage. Though he does not yet boast Broadway credits, I would not be surprised if that changes in the near future. I couldn't help but think that I might have preferred seeing him in the role of Charles Frohman/Captain Hook.
No matter the flaws of this musical, one cannot dismiss the pure enjoyment the audience shows, though that may come through their fondness for the earlier film or for the original story. Regardless, the audience at the performance I saw had no problem losing themselves in the moment and following the command to just "Believe."
Finding Neverland is presented by SunTrust Broadway, Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham, NC 27701 through May 28th, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.DPACnc.com, www.ticketmaster.com, or the Ticket Center at DPAC in person or by phone at 919-680-2787. For more information on the tour, visit findingneverlandthemusical.com/tour/.
Director: Diane Paulus