In a way, Finding Neverland is the prequel to the numerous films and stage productions of J.M. Barrie’s celebrated story, describing the boy who became Peter Pan. Except, perhaps, that this Broadway musical focuses on the author himself, a man who didn’t want to grow up.
Now on display at the Benedum Center as part of PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh, Finding Neverland is also the musical translation of the delicately nuanced and intimate film that starred Johnny Depp. However, Broadway musicals would seem to be the antithesis of that, boldly drawing in audiences of several thousand.
And so this Neverland is. It borrows from the film in unfolding the creative process and imagination that went into the formation of the original play, telling the story of Barrie, who was suffering from writer’s block when a chance encounter with a young widow and her four sons in London’s Kensington Park changes his life.
The boys help to unlock his sense of invention. Like a jigsaw puzzle, they assemble the pieces of the story from real life while we watch. Tick tock. A large furry dog. That vaguely familiar bedroom for the children, with a large double window through which dreams come true.
The stage story only hits a snag when it toggles between reality and the imagination. In the film, it easily faded from a scene into Barrie’s mind. But at first, a man dressed in a bear suit had to suffice in the stage version. Aside from a Dali-esque carousel inside Barrie’s mind and a rousing recreation of a ship, the musical had to wait until the end, when the young widow, gravely ill, makes her final trip to Neverland amid a breathtaking whirlwind of glittering fairy dust.
Magical, indeed, in just the right dose. That was the signal to hit all the right buttons, making the segue into a Disney-esque finale.
Some of the problems came from director Diane Paulus, who won a Tony Award for Pippin, for forcing the story beyond its borders. Choreographer Mia Michaels, best known for So You Think You Can Dance, resorted to typical Broadway vocabulary, rather than surrounding the characters with some period choreography that tapped the Barrie imagination.
The talented cast does a lot to offset this assertive interpretation. Kevin Kern (J.M. Barrie) and Christine Dwyer (Sylvia Llewelyn Davies) were the perfect match — he romping about the stage and she a partner in constant invention. Their voices did great justice to a rather familiar-sounding musical score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, particularly in terrific duet, Neverland.
Peter, played hauntingly, then warmly by Ben Krieger had a similar moment in When Your Feet don’t Touch the Ground with Kern. Krieger was joined by three boisterously lovable brothers who added plenty of grit and spirit to the production.
And you can’t forget Captain Hook, one of theater’s oddly adorable villains, here rendered in a double role by Tom Hewitt (also playing theater impresario Charles Frohman).
So what should we take from Neverland? While it pushed and pulled the Barrie story, sometimes stretching its limits and occasionally tapping its inherent fantastical effects, there was a Tinker Bell effect.
Despite the flaws, the audience seemed to float out the door, ready to follow the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.