Printed from the EDGE
Although “Finding Neverland” is set in turn-of-the-19th century London where the renowned Scottish author J. M. Barrie was the darling of the smart set, this is not an historic reproduction of the times or the actual events surrounding the creation of the beloved play and novel, “Peter Pan: The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.”
On the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne, what is celebrated is a kind of wonderful schmaltz that is as welcome as the spring shower outside, an overdose of candy or loop of romantic songs.
If you are not a fan of fantasy or romance, or if you do not believe in fairies, mermaids, pirates and flying children then please stay home and binge on Netflix. From the moment the house lights dim and a glimmering light jumps and bounces across the stage, into the audience and across the opulent flowered, velvet stage curtain, we know we are about to go to Neverland.
The play is based on the movie of the same title, which stared Johnny Depp as Barrie; in this production the very talented, sweet-faced Matthew Morrison, late of TV’s “Glee,” takes up the mantle of tortured playwright in an unhappy marriage. Morrison is a consummate song and dance man and with his curly hair and new bushy beard he straddles the line from boy to man nicely.
The opening number features a cast of wildly talented thespians filling the stage and spilling out, showcasing wonderful costumes by Suttiratt Anne Larlarb, on a set by Scott Pask that only seems to get better and better as the scenes unfold.
Barrie has writer’s block and seems to turn out one terrible play after another. His American producer Charles Frohman is played with a hammy exuberance by Kelsey Grammer, who also steps into a curly wig and hooked hand of Peter Pan’s villain during Barrie’s mental gymnastics while creating this new genre of play. It was groundbreaking work meant to appeal to both adults and children. And this new musical on Broadway seems to take up that cause with abandon and wisdom.
The work was originally directed and is now remounted by the dexterous, innovative Diane Paulus. It was the most attended production in the history of the esteemed American Repertory Theater in Boston before moving to the Great White Way. Paulus added choreography by Mia Michaels, which while not monumental, does move the work along nicely including some inspired dance moves in the air, on tables, and walking a plank improvised from a park bench.
There is plenty of shtick and mugging in the production. One example is when Grammer, as the producer, takes the cast out for drinks to a pub and one actor asks him, “Do they say ‘Cheers’ where you come from?” The audience raised on the hit sitcom “Cheers,” where Grammer became a household name, guffaws uproariously.
Legend has it that Barrie encountered Sylvia Llewellyn Davies and her band of boys in Kensington Park during one of Barrie’s wool-gathering sessions intended to provoke creativity. Instead of finding the inspiration for the next drawing room drama, Barrie began to be beguiled by the boys and their wild romps of imagination.
The siblings were particularly ready for adult male attention, having lost their father a year earlier. And so throughout we see the themes of unwillingness to grow up, the absence of a father, the importance of a mother evinced in the Wendy character, as well as the importance of belief in self and in magic in order to tow the line to be an artist, a writer.
The gaggle of boys in this production are played by a rotating septet and my group was superb. They sang, harmonized, danced, pouted, hid under tables and tore up the stage with impish grins and gamin tears. These boys have soprano voices so clear and sharp I imagine they could cut glass and certainly do sound like angels. They make the magic in the production seem, oh so much more real.
“Peter Pan” opened to great fanfare in the West End and in this Neverland the magical kingdom is well represented with one mermaid, a floppy crawling crocodile and the smallest boy Michael brought to life by the rotund played for maximum giggles by Josh Lamon. Add to the mix a cast of pirates, fairies and a giant Nana Dog.
As Barrie’s creativity surges Sylvia, the mother of the real boys, is dying of consumption. She is played with an ethereal loveliness by Laura Michelle Kelly. Sylvia’s willingness to go along and do almost anything to make her boys smile and feel alive again is countered by her quite dour yet loving mother played by Carolee Carmello, who in a fun twist of fate was Grammer’s agent in the long-running hit “Fraiser.” She is marvelous in voice and presence.
The wonderful lighting by Phillip S. Rosenberg and the projections of magical pyrotechnic element by John Driscoll and Paul Kieve, respectively round out the feeling of genuine magic that pervades the show. The music, by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy (music and lyrics) is well sung by everyone, but there is no song that sticks in your head so that you roll along humming a tune. Rather the wander home in the welcome springtime air seems to find you humming pure joy.
“Finding Neverland” enjoys an extended run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 W 46 St. in New York City. For information or tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit http://findingneverlandthemusical.com/tickets