Theater Review: FINDING NEVERLAND (National Tour at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 23, 2016

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Playwright Alan Knee called Sir J. M. Barrie “the man who was Peter Pan.” If so, it was an author’s compensation as much as creativity. James Barrie was a shy Scotsman, awkward and diffident in public with an extroverted artistry to compensate for self-effacing insecurity. In the 2004 motion picture Finding Neverland, Barrie was mercurially played by trickster actor Johnny Depp as a mischievous man-child liberated by an extra-marital romance and the five rambunctious sons of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet).


With four bratty boys as merry muses, Barrie abandoned Edwardian folderol like his earlier failure Little Mary. With the reluctant backing of American impresario Charles Frohman and apparently stealing characters from everyone around him, in 1904 Barrie gave the world Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Never Grew Up. The rest is theater.

christine-dwyer-as-sylvia-llewelyn-davies-and-kevin-kern-as-jm-barrie-in-the-national-tour-of-finding-neverland-credit-carol-rosegg0969rArt allegedly mirrors life. Audiences love that colorful cause-and-effect between source and story, with its occasional and strategic reversals: Like the much-prized film, Finding Neverland, a similarly-praised 2011 musical with book by James Graham and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, traces back a childhood classic (and glorious guilty pleasure for grownups) to the Davies and the Barries. The six were peculiar partners in the escapist pageant that became Peter Pan.

Finding Neverland, it seems, is a lot trickier than flying on fairy dust to “the second star on the right and straight on till morning.” This mystical destination—where colors burst and shift as they do at dusk or dawn, crocodiles swallow clocks and crave captains, pirates and Indians wage turf wars, and the Lost Boys briefly find a “mother” for their eternally young “father”—was inspired in Kensington Gardens by the Bohemian-like Davies clan, Barrie’s second family.

As the editorializing anthem “Believe” proclaims, we stop dreaming at our own peril. Faithful to the film, the musical, now on an engaging if insistent touring production, battens onto this seminal moment. Bored with his pedestrian, social-climbing and unfaithful wife (being called Mary Barrie didn’t help either), the childless, lonely writer falls in love with Sylvia (here a widow, though she wasn’t when she met Barrie).

As Lewis Carroll did for Alice Liddell, Barrie’s imagination is ignited by pre-teen Peter and his fun-loving, game-playing brothers George, Jack and Michael (“We Own The Night”). Peter, Michael and John became the Darling boys. Sylvia was transformed into the once and future Wendy. Even their sheep dog became Nana, the famous canine nanny.


Haunted by the memory of his 14-year-old brother David (whose loss to his mother in an ice-skating accident James could never replace), Barrie is particularly drawn to Peter, himself anguished by his dad’s death and all too eager to grow up and, as Barrie fears, sell out.


Stirred up by Sylvia’s imperious and patrician mother Mrs. DuMaurier (Joanna Giushak), a scandal brews over Barrie’s inexplicable interest in the Davies clan. Alas, like Barrie’s brother and Peter’s father, Sylvia is stricken (with cancer). In effect she must leave her sons to James, a spiritual and surrogate father. It’s a flagrant case of life threatening art with death, “an awfully great adventure” as Peter will call it in the play.


Sylvia’s all-transfiguring end provides the musical’s most gorgeous moment, one of many awesome spectacles: The dying mother is engulfed in glittering fairy dust, her shawl soars above, and she passes through the dormer window to the Neverland of eternity. Too sick to attend the opening, she had been granted an unasked last wish–to see Peter Pan reenacted in her bedroom by both the enthusiastic original cast and the sons whose play produced a play.


As for Peter Pan itself, art imitates life again: Barrie filled 25 seats on opening night with very appreciative orphans from St. Ormund’s establishment–to which Barrie would later deed, to the irritation of Frohman (Tom Hewitt, anticipating Daddy Warbucks), the proceeds from the production.


Despite Barlow and Kennedy’s forgettably generic pop anthems, Diane Paulus’s enthralling and eye-popping staging perfectly employs Scott Pask’s exhilarating flying sets (most festively in “Welcome to London”) and Jon Driscoll’s deep and ornamentally-patterned projections. Perversely or not, nothing is left to the imagination, notwithstanding the show’s proselytizing for creativity: Waltzing to the shadows that will connect Peter and Wendy, Kevin Kern’s stolid James and Christine Dyers’ delicate Sylvia croon “What You Mean to Me.” Earlier, an Edwardian dinner party never looked more sumptuous or felt more dysfunctional. Breaking Barrie’s writer’s block, a not so imaginary Captain James Hook (also Hewitt) ends the first act with a buccaneers’ ballet complete with ship’s rigging.


Wait. There’s more. As if enchanted by Tinkerbell, the video, more cinematic than the Miramax movie, lets us soar high above London and even higher among the speckled stars, rush through the park at night, or rampage though “the circus of your mind.” A silly romp where the adult actors (still stereotypes after 112 years!) clumsily cavort like kids (“Play”) is followed by the boys’ much more believable make-believe (“We’re All Made of Stars”).


Except for Dee Tomasetta’s irritatingly obnoxious Peter Pan (no Maude Adams, Mary Martin or even Cathy Rigby), the performances, more persuasive than the show, astonish and delight. Particularly poignant are the changeable Davies children (Finn Falconer, Ben Krieger, Eli Tokash, Mitchell Wray, Tyler Patrick Hennessy, and Jordan Cole). But the rehearsal scenes are crudely comic, including a stupid-ass joke from a ham actor asked if he believes in fairies. (You can guess the cheap answer.) Worse, two “flaming faggots” mince it up among the nobility and thespians. Mia Michaels’ clodhopper choreography is surprisingly stodgy with stomping, a transplanted hoedown as incongruous as the perplexing country-western score.


More than in the movie—where the show and its source were kept cunningly apart—Finding Neverland perpetrates a blurring of origins and dreams that in effect shortchanges Barrie’s achievement: He didn’t just borrow from life; as the boys’ free-form play suggested, he improved on it. Peter Pan is a fantastical fusion of Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Lear, Victorian pantomime, dime store Western adventures, the actual Davies brothers, and, above all, the brain of Barrie. That’s where Neverland started and stayed, not in a Broadway musical’s “lost and found.”

photos by Carol Rosegg

Finding Neverland
national tour
Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St
ends on December 4, 2016
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway In Chicago

tour continues through August, 2017
for dates and cities, visit Finding Neverland

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