Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The source material for the new musical Finding Neverland contains many opportunities for a magical and whimsical musical adaptation. Yet, despite some beautiful designs and a solid story, the piece fails to take full advantage of this chance, due to some glaring weaknesses. The very talented cast of the national tour currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati does much to compensate for the show's flaws, but they can only do so much.
Finding Neverland began as the 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, and was then turned into a 2004 film Finding Neverland. The story focuses on playwright J.M. Barrie, and chronicles what led him to create Peter Pan circa 1903. It turns out that the primary inspiration was the Llewelyn Davies family, consisting of four boys and their widowed mother Sylvia, who spurred Barrie to rekindle his imaginative juices and write something new.
The book for the musical by James Graham is solid, condensing the action appropriately for the musical. He maintains the playful elements of the story while also delivering some tender moments and relationships. There is plenty of romance, intrigue, and tragedy as well. Some of the jokes are good ones (though a few seem too modern), but a few clunkers are also present.
The score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy is one of the primary weaknesses. Though there aren't any bad numbers, there aren't many songs that are distinguished either. Most of them can best be described as generic. There are a few tunes that are glaringly too modern ("Something about This Night" sounds like it belongs in Footloose), and the show is very ballad heavy. The best songs are "Neverland," "Stronger," and "We're All Made of Stars," a simple quartet for the four boys.
The other weaknesses are that of the direction and choreography. Director Diane Paulus has done some excellent work in recent years, and shines at times here, with great transitions and some remarkable stagecraft in a few spots (special kudos to Daniel Wurtzel for his air sculptor effects). However, much of the staging seems much too busy, as if she is trying to compensate for the many ballads with distracting blocking by the ensemble. This might work if the movement and dances were of the same tone as the scene, but choreographer Mia Michaels instead infuses those songs with exaggerated motions, dances, and reactions which don't fit. Both the direction and the dances excel (and are apt to the tone) during the fantasy elements of the show (daydreams of the characters, or the Peter Pan moments), but not otherwise.
The tour cast is quite strong, with some seasoned performers, three actors with local ties, and a wonderful overall company. Billy Harrigan Tighe, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) (along with cast members Kristine Reese and Will Ray), displays the enthusiastic thirst for creative spark of J. M Barrie, and sings beautifully throughout. At the performance reviewed, understudy Sarah Marie Charles portrayed Sylvia. She conveyed the character's determination and supportive nature effectively, and proved herself to be a fine vocalist.
Six young performers rotate in the roles of the Llewelyn Davies boys; showcased at the performance attended were Colin Wheeler (Peter) Connor Jameson Casey (George), Berman Freedman (Jack), and Turner Birthisel (Michael). Each is versatile and very talented. Two Broadway/theater vets do very well in featured roles. John Davidson is familiar to many due to his TV credits, but he has copious stage credits as well. Here, he hams it up as theater producer Charles Frohman, and displays sharp acting chops and forceful singing (though his diction at times could be a bit better). Karen Murphy superbly brings a surprising character arc to life as Mrs. Du Maurier. The remaining ensemble members shine in multiple roles with many individual standout moments.
The scenic design by Scott Pask, including some beautiful projections by Jon Driscoll, contains lovely Victorian era motifs and odes to books of that period. The fantasy and Peter Pan scenes are rendered effectively, with some grandiose moments including the end of act one. Kenneth Posner's lighting is varied and includes some interesting shadow work, which is foreshadowing for the Peter Pan story as well. The costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb are attractive and period appropriate. Ryan Cantwell leads an excellent-sounding seven-piece orchestra.
It is interesting to see the story of what inspired the creation of Peter Pan, but one wishes that Finding Neverland would itself be more inspired in its adaptation as a musical. The story is a charming one at heart, but the lackluster score and direction/choreography too often work against the piece and diminish that charm significantly. Audiences are sure to enjoy many moments of the show, as well as the fine cast, but this is a lost opportunity in many ways.
Finding Neverland continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, through November 19, 2017. Tickets can be ordered by calling 800-294-1816. For more information on the tour, visit findingneverlandthemusical.com/tour/.