As simple as a light floating over the stage, in an instant, performers have had children mesmerized for over a century. Once simply a reflected beam from an offstage lamp illuminating the set design, the effect proves just as enthralling in 2014 when it is a fleck of tricky interior-stringed luminescence, pulled across the audience in the opening moments of Finding Neverland, the latest movie-to-Broadway transfer that is in mid-flight for the moment at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge.
Indeed, it should be noted, underlined, and lightly fairy dusted that despite already having an impressive $3 million budget, this first-time theatrical producing effort from Harvey Weinstein (at least as the lead producer) is only an early preview of what the full Never Never Land will reveal when it bows for the first time in New York next spring, with an additional $11 million of fairy magic to boot. But the good news is that at the moment, it has already rounded the second star to the right, even if it still needs some work if it wants to head on till morning.
Ostensibly an adaptation of the Miramax-produced 2004 movie of the same name, the production shares the “true story” (in all its sanitized glory) architecture of that film. Yet, it intentionally sacrifices the contours and adult complexity of that family friendly feature in order to create the kind of kid-centric theatrical spectacle that took the Great White Way by storm last year with Matilda, or in lead actor Jeremy Jordan’s previous Broadway debut, Newsies. How perfectly fitting.
There is something to this material that Weinstein is correct in assuming is complemented by the stage (it is the second production of the story that he has produced). After all, Pan first took flight in the theatre with 1904’s Peter and Wendy, and it is on stage again where the Boy Who Never Grows Up helps elevate a musical about his literary creation into something emotionally satisfying, particularly when Pan and his homeland creep from the wings onto the star-bedazzled sets and projection designs by Scott Pask and Gilles Papain, respectively.
Hardly a spoiler to say, Finding Neverland is about playwright J.M. Barrie’s artistic struggles and inspirations to create his most beloved work, Peter Pan. And the play-within-a-play concept works beautifully during the climax of the second act when a wireless recounting of its 1904 debut leaves audiences imaginations to refreshingly fill in the soaring for the meta-Pan and Wendy, who are given a boost by Mia Michaels’ energetic choreography, which constantly fills the background with visual wit during even the most expository sequences.
Much of that exposition is left itself to Mr. Barrie, played by American-born Jordan with a thick and broadly aware Scottish accent that he impressively keeps rooted throughout his singing. Whether the real Barrie was quite so jovial as a boy in an adult’s body is less known, but he brings a charming eccentricity to this man-child onstage, especially in the company of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, played with great ethereal appeal by Laura Michelle Kelly. Essentially presented as Barrie’s fantasia-loving soul mate, the two’s platonic friendship is much less chaste than the movie, but given the penchant for both characters to speak in reassuring platitudes, it feels evermore pure.
In fact, Kelly’s Sylvia gets to participate in the two best songs of the night. The first is the lovely earworm “All That Matters,” which features single mother Sylvia sparring with mama Madame du Maurier (Carolee Carmello) about how best to raise her four sons that Mr. Barrie has unofficially taken under his wing. It quickly segues into a power ballad solo about love, fun, and joy being the most important qualities in a life well-lived. For anyone who knows the fate of the real Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, this is the beginning of the show’s strongest narrative element that holds both acts together.
She also later duets with Jordan for the showstopper “Neverland,” which the inherent fanciful longing of showcases the best attributes from Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy’s music and lyrics. Barlow, a hit record producer who was once a pop star in Britain with the band Take That, and who has been known to judge a competition or two on The X Factor, and Kennedy whose background is also in pop (Spice Girls, Bryan Adams), are making their first foray into musical theatre. The songs vary in depth of feeling between earnest sincerity and audience-demanding-fun, but they all rely on heavy and immediately eardrum-burrowing hooks.
This can be a blessing for numbers like Scottish pub room ditty “Play” that opens up the second act, but it can also lead to a few thuds that may need to be tweaked before the Great White Way. In particular, the “consummating” love song between Barrie and Sylvia, “We’re All Made of Stars,” drips with Top 40 crooning, but misses the whirlwind of the truly great musical love songs from the past. However, this may be due to the show surprisingly losing some of its swashbuckling verve in the middle of the second act.
The first act sets up the conflict very well—Barrie hasn’t written a hit in years and would rather play with the Llewelyn Davies boys than sit down to write, or face his superficial wife played by Jeanna De Waal—and ends on a huge spectacle that will have children from one to ninety-two smiling ear to ear: Captain Hook appears in Barrie’s dreams to insist what his new play needs is his villainy and goes about proving it by turning the set into a jaunty pirate ship. However, until the play-within-a-play element crescendos the entire show into something entirely cathartic, much of the second act feels like waiting for the tears and cheers as Sylvia fills one bloody handkerchief with her coughs at a time.
Renowned A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus executes all of the transitions and emotional beats seamlessly from James Graham’s book, but the emotional heart pumping those flutters of Barrie’s imagination, namely the four Llewelyn Davies boys played by Aiden Gemme, Alex Dreier, Hayden Signoretti, and Sawyer Nunes, are relatively interchangeable in their cuteness. While this material doesn’t necessitate a Billy Elliot approach to their adolescent plight, only Gemme’s Peter (for understandable reasons) is allowed to distinguish himself as a genuine character, and the one that haunts Barrie due to his insistence on growing up.
Fortunately, any narrative problems ultimately drift away like distant London clouds when the show reaches its spellbinding finale and weaves the greatest hits of Peter and Wendy into its conclusion that gives Sylvia a bittersweet send-off that will linger for any audience member who has been a parent or especially a child. Likewise, the show is littered with wonderful callbacks to that Victorian and Edwardian mindset, including several actors asked to perform as dogs throughout the show (much to the delight of the youngest theatergoers), and even multiple roles. The latter bit is especially strong since Michael McGrath nearly walks away with the whole show first as Barrie’s American producer/chum/whispering devil, and then later as the full demon at his most bombastic as Captain Hook, a grounded pirate that flies all his own at the end of Act One.
It’s in these simple reappropriations of staples from Barrie’s era that Finding Neverland discovers true grace and spelndor for audience members of all ages. In 1904, Barrie famously got the trendiest of Londoners to clap for the sake of a speck of light. Such audience interaction is still an elation 110 years later. For any who ever clapped for Tinkerbell, or still wants to, Finding Neverland has true magic that just needs to be a bit more evenly sprinkled.