In “Finding Neverland,” a tale about the man who created the famed boy who wouldn’t grow up, there’s charm, there’s talent, and there’s even a fairy—but, in the end, the musical’s book, score, and direction means the musical comedy can’t get its feet off the ground.
“Finding Neverland”, which runs through March 3, 2019, is one of those come-full-circle types of productions; that is, it’s a musical based on a movie based on a play. The movie, which was released in 2004 and starred Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, earned an Oscar nomination, while the play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, was a 42nd Street Workshop production in 1998 that never made the leap to the Great White Way.
The book, penned by James Graham, is sweet in its retelling of playwright Barrie’s creative slump, which is lifted when he meets four young boys and their widowed mother, Sylvia, in Kensington Gardens. He’s inspired by the playful antics of the brothers to create the world of Neverland and all its inhabitants. The script is much funnier than anyone who’s seen the dramatic 2004 movie would expect, but much of the dialogue, including a few of the jokes, is far too on the nose.
Jeff Sullivan, in his portrayal of Barrie, shows off his charisma scene in and scene out, effortlessly capturing the childlike whimsicality that one would hope the true creator of Peter Pan might have had.
There’s no denying that “Finding Neverland” is a heartwarming production…
His voice has a melodic lilt that, in small doses, would be utterly delightful. As it is, though, the sing-songy vocalization ended up being irksome. That’s not necessarily on Sullivan, though—it’s impossible to know who made the character choice, but it’s a small piece of a bigger problem. The production suffers from over-the-top direction and choreography (Oh, the bouncing) that didn’t always feel appropriate.
Ruby Gibbs, who plays the widow that eventually becomes Barrie’s love interest, possesses a voice of gold. In another part in another script, she could move emotional mountains. With “Neverland’s” book, though, Gibbs isn’t allowed to shine the way she likely could. Luckily, the same isn’t true of the four Llewelyn Davies boys (played at the reviewed performance on February 26 by Seth Erdley (Peter), Paul Schoeller (George), Josiah Smothers (Jack), and Brody Bett (Michael). Their parts aren’t technically challenging—nor would you expect it to be—but the four moppets were enchanting.
In the story, Barrie is challenged by his American producer, Charles Frohman, played by Conor McGriffin, who is a real highlight of the musical. True, McGriffin doesn’t have the obstacle of affecting a British accent like the rest of the cast, but he projects just the right balance between character and realism as Frohman. Then, in a transformation into Captain James Hook—a character appearing only in Barrie’s mind—McGiffin adopts a new nefarious persona without tip-toeing into the ridiculous.
The villains always end up being the best parts, don’t they?
The technical aspects of the “Finding Neverland” are visually marvelous, but there’s a trend toward using projected digital imagery, and it’s not always necessary. Point in case: There’s a stunningly non-digital effect involving a tornado of glitter toward the end of the production that was 10 times more captivating than anything loaded up on a computer.
There’s no denying that “Finding Neverland” is a heartwarming production, but be aware—the fatuous sap could mean your chest might burst into flames.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
“Finding Neverland” runs through March 3, 2019, at The National Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit the tour’s website.