Peter Pan has provided a wealth of source material for plays, novels, films, and more, even providing the basis for a beloved musical popularized by the likes of Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby. It was only a matter of time before someone decided to turn the 2004 Johnny Depp film "Finding Neverland" into a musical, which had a successful run on Broadway and is now making a national tour stop at the Hollywood Pantages. The based-on-a-true story tale tells of the real-life Llewelyn Davies family who inspired J.M. Barrie to create the boy who would never grow up.
"Peter Pan" is a rich ur-text at this point, laden with themes of grief, childhood, the loss of innocence, and more – the reason it never ceases to be a source material for compelling storytelling is because of these themes on full display in the new musical. At first, the over-the-top musical theatre tropes of the characters (and the actors portraying them) are difficult to reconcile with the Edwardian world of the setting, but mid-way through the first act, when we finally start to verge into fantasy and magical realism, the show takes flight. Initially, the musical medium seems like it might erase the delicacy of the film it's based on (as Mary Barrie and Lord Cannan, Crystal Kellogg and Noah Plomgren ham it up and verge on overdoing it), but the stage magic in moments of fantasy restores that deft hand.
As Barrie is inspired to create Neverland and the iconic characters of "Peter Pan," they come to life around him in songs like "Neverland," "Circus of Your Mind," and "Stronger." The richer the creations of his imagination, the more beautiful and compelling the action on stage. As he sings of themes of imagination and escape in "Neverland" or breathes life into his darker side in "Hook" and "Stronger," Barrie musicalizes the themes that make "Peter Pan" an eternal tale – the magic of the "second star to the right," a place where you never have to grow up, and the bittersweet nature of reality all live vividly in those songs.
Barrie argues that "Peter Pan" is a play for "everyone who has a child living inside of them," and the songs awaken that in the audience. Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy have created a score that gleams with as much pixie dust and magic as the story they hail from. This is aided by Diane Paulus' expert direction and staging, which sees park benches become pirate ships and bay windows transformed into portals to another world. Via the trappings of fantasy, a gleam of light that is Tinkerbell, the riggings of a pirate mast, you are transported back to childhood in powerfully affecting ways. We alternate between sheer joy at the delight of these scenarios and a wistfulness for a simpler time in our own lives.
The play's ability to live in between make believe and reality is greatly enhanced by Jon Driscoll's projections. In many scenes, they make us feel as if we are really on a London street, surrounded by the familiar stateliness of terrace homes. But then they fade away bringing us into the night sky and Neverland, allowing both the audience and the characters to transition seamlessly between flights of fantasy and keeping our feet on the ground. Because the projections fade slowly, the transitions are never jarring, but effortless, and it's easy to understand how the characters fall so easily into the magic of storytelling.
All of this is buoyed by the talents of the cast, particularly Billy Harrigan Tighe as J.M. Barrie, Christine Dwyer as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, Tom Hewitt as Charles Frohman and Captain Hook, and the four incomparable Llewelyn Davies boys who rotate in casting each night. Tighe and Dwyer bring a sincerity to their work that enhances their natural chemistry – their attraction isn't one of lust or love at first sight, but a mutual understanding of the purity and generosity of the other's heart. In a world dripping with cynicism, it is heartening to see two characters (and actors) so alive with earnestness and unaffected joy.
They are supported by joyous and playful performances from the four children (in this performance, Ben Krieger as Peter, Finn Faulconer as George, Mitchell Wray as Jack, and Jordan Cole as an utterly adorable Michael)– their performances are infectious in their exuberance and achingly honest in their grief. Krieger possesses a gravitas that defies his years, enhancing Peter's journey through grief and imagination that inspires Barrie to draw him out of himself. If we're being nitpicky, all of the cast struggles with their British accents at moments. However, once you really become absorbed in the action, you stop caring.
As both the grumpy, skeptical producer and the mustachioed villain, Hewitt blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. He helps the audience transition flawlessly, at turns delighting as the gruff producer with a heart of gold and chewing the scenery as Barrie's imagining of Hook. It's not only a delightful glimpse at how writers are inspired in their own lives, but an excellent tool to help audiences buy into the seamless magic-making happening on stage. Hook is meant to be the darker side of Barrie come to life, and Frohman imbues with him a hint of villainy and a sparkling glee at getting to play a cartoon villain. Hewitt is magnetic and hilarious, aided by a witty book written by James Graham. The play never panders to the children in the audience, but, like Barrie, treats them with respect and understanding.
Mia Michaels' choreography is a feast for the eyes and its quirky moves and jagged angles assist in the show's continual blurring of fantasy and reality. She's been known to create some of the most unique and emotionally stirring dances on "So You Think You Can Dance" and those gifts are on ample display here. Instead of relying on technical effects, the production uses physical sound in dance and choreography to create fantastical moments, including making character fly through dance, rather than wires. Her use of physical sound to create rhythm and jarring transitions throughout her routines adds another layer.
Ultimately, the heartbreaking theme of "Finding Neverland" (and "Peter Pan") is that the only people who never grow up are those who don't live long enough to. We can only remain young at heart. Sylvia Llewelyn Davies is the embodiment of this, and its her joy and devotion that lead Barrie to discover himself and "Neverland." The play's most powerful moments are in its conclusion, and without giving away the ending, the artistry, metaphor, and delicacy with which its handled will bring a lump to your throat. In this moment, Neverland is imbued with a sense of magic and bittersweet grief that its childhood iterations lack. The conclusion uses all the magic of the stage and the artistry of choreography, direction, and scenic design to heighten the pull and power of Neverland so that we all might find it in our own hearts.
"Finding Neverland" is playing at the Hollywood Pantages (6233 Hollywood Blvd.) through March 12, 2017. Tickets start at $35. For more information, visit www.HollywoodPantages.com.
Contact Associate Arts and Culture Editor Maureen Lee Lenker at firstname.lastname@example.org