‘Finding Neverland’ – Book by James Graham, based on the Miramax film by David Magee and the play ‘The Man Who Was Peter Pan’ by Allan Knee; Music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy; Directed by Diane Paulus; Choreography by Mia Michaels; Set design by Scott Pask. Presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Center, 64 Brattle St. in Cambridge through September 28th.
If there is one thing you can count on with any production at the American Repertory Theatre under the direction of Diane Paulus these days, it’s that you will get your money’s worth, no matter what the show. From the brilliant re-interpretation of ‘Pippin’ to the odd but fun premiere of ‘Marie Antoinette’ (which I thoroughly enjoyed), the A.R.T. will always deliver a first rate production that squeezes every ounce from its source material. The same can certainly be said of the latest world premiere, ‘Finding Neverland’, which audiences were seemingly quite enthralled with on press night. And while I was not quite as enchanted as I have been with other productions over the last few years, this is a pretty damn good show, especially for families with younger kids.
The story opens with the closing after one night of playwright J.M. Barrie’s latest work, and the distraught theater owner thinks that Barrie may be losing his touch, as he implores him with the refrain from the opening number, “Do that thing you do, just do it better.” He sends him on his way and tells him he needs a new play ASAP. But Barrie is creatively stuck, and the story implies that his writer’s block may stem from his relationship with his uptight former actress wife, whose main fascination in life seems to be re-arranging the furniture in their home with the help of her phenomenally talented dancing servants. (Why the author chose to include a number in the show about re-arranging furniture escapes me, but Mia Michael’s choreography is stunning during the number – as it is for the entire show.)
Barrie’s imagination is rekindled after a chance meeting in the park with Widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davis and her four young boys, who are playing and letting their imaginations run wild, conjuring up Indians (the American kind), wild animals and pirates with the kind of stream of consciousness play that kids do so naturally. He starts spending time with the family, and while his imagination is being fueled, so is the rumor mill about his relationship with the widow while he is still married. He still struggles to come up with a decent script even with the help of the boys, and it’s not until he has an encounter in a dream sequence with Captain Hook that his story takes off. Not coincidentally, it’s where ‘Finding Neverland’ also takes off, with a dynamite closing number where Barrie decides to pull out all the stops after Hook tells him, “A man who is not willing to fight for what he believes in deserves what he gets.”
The problem for me with this show is that while it celebrates the power of imagination, the script isn’t very imaginative. It delivers a lot of platitudes like, “Anything is possible if you believe” and “Perhaps having fun is more important than everything being perfect” (to his wife), but those lines sometimes seem like tacked on slogans rather than something that grows organically from the narrative. The other problem is the score. While there are some pretty solid numbers, particularly, “Neverland” with Sylvia and Barrie (Laura Michelle Kelly and Jeremy Jordan respectively, both of whom are terrific throughout) none of the songs are particularly brilliant. I kept waiting for the American Songbook entrant or at least something I’d like to hear on WERS ‘Standing Room Only’, but the songs have more of a top 40 feel than any that would qualify as potential standards. (One duet did sound like a potential chart topper for Jay Z and Beyonce though.)
But these are not huge complaints, and this is musical theater after all. While this show may not reach the heights hit by ‘Pippin’ (or even the sense of fun found in ‘Heart of Robin Hood’), this is bound to be a crowd pleaser, and it will be Broadway bound next spring. As with all recent A.R.T productions, this is a well-produced, brilliantly choreographed show with some pretty stunning special effects that bring a sense of wonder to the production. For more info, go to: http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/finding-neverland