Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Finding Neverland"

Finding Neverland
James Graham (Book); Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy (Music & Lyrics)

The Cast of "Finding Neverland"
Before J.M. Barrie begins putting pen to paper for his most famous of plays, into his 1903 London life enter four boys who pretend Kensington Park is their own special island – boys who crow like a rooster, play pirates and Indians, and imagine what mermaids and fairies might look like.  But one of the boys, Peter, “who doesn’t play any more,” sits on a bench acting more “like a grown man” than a young lad – that is, until the boy-like man in the park, James Barrie, begins to coax him into imagining someplace far away, beyond the stars, called Neverland. 

The special relationship the two begin developing serves as the backdrop of James Graham’s book for the musical Finding Neverland; and before our eyes, the pieces begin to fall into place for Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (revolutionary at the time because it calls for adults to play children’s parts).  With music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, the touring version of the 2015 Broadway show Finding Neverland -- now at SHN Orpheum -- is a kaleidoscope of color and childhood memories, a panorama of magical and twinkling moments, and a storybook page where a rambunctious, highly talented cast is able to tell, sing, and dance a story that is fun, heartfelt, and fully engaging for kids and adults alike.

J.M. (James) Barrie is a successful playwright whose plot lines have become more and more retreads of each other as he explains in “My Imagination.”  “The well has run dry of all my ideas; the silence is so loud, have to cover my ears,” he opines in song.  With an alluring voice that cuts cleanly through a theatre’s back-stage atmosphere of props, ropes, and huge shadows, Kevin Kern sings his lament and desire to “escape from everything that is real.” 

Christine Dwyer & Kevin Kern
When he happens on a mother, her four boys, and their overgrown dog in Kensington Park, he and they begin to “Believe”, seeing how a park bench can be a “big circus tent” or “a rocket that’s heading to Mars.”  To his tenor voice that can build in volume with intensity pure and proud is added the mellifluous soprano of Christine Dwyer as the widow, Sylvia Davies.  While maybe not love at first sight, the sparks generated in their initial song prove to be prescient of a relationship to come – a bond that her boys desperately want to see because this James is himself just one big, over-grown boy and playmate.

When she sings “All that Matters,” Ms. Dwyer allows her crystal-clear notes to float with simple ease into the scene’s floating clouds.  Her resolve for a future that moves beyond the sadness of losing her husband is beautifully captured in her voice.  Eventually, she and James (J.M.) will realize “What You Mean to Me” in a captivating duet where their two voices intertwine in sweet harmony that is striking in its simplicity.

Mitchell Wray, Jordan Cole, Finn Faulconer & Ben Krieger
And while the developing love relationship between James and Sylvia is an important thread to this story, it is the Peter/James pairing that is the heart and soul and the real inspiration for J.M.’s daring play about kids and their imaginations.  Ben Krieger plays the young Peter, and he does so with maturity in acting and singing well beyond his young age.  He and his brothers (Finn Faulconer, Mitchell Wray, and Jordon Cole) are pure boys in their rowdy play and silliness; but when they sing (as in “We Own the Night” and “We’re All Made of Stars”), their voices are totally minus any of the screeching, too-zealous tones too often seen on stages populated by eager kids.  And when Peter and J.M. sing “When You’re Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” they deliver what may be the night’s best number as their voices effortlessly jump up and down the scales, elegantly mixing their tenor and boy soprano while they imagine a place above the clouds where it is safe and no hurt can be felt.

Kevin Kern & Tom Hewitt
But for James Barrie to venture into a gripping adventure as a storyline for his play, he must come to recognize the darker side of his otherwise upbeat, playful personality.  Into a dream James has one troubled night when his would-be play is just not coming together emerges a pirate king named Hook along with his snarly pirates.  Telling J.M., “You need me ... Your play needs me ... Children like to scared ... They just don’t know it yet,” Tom Hewitt is a gruff, bass-voiced Hook who convinces J.M., “You can find the courage to write your own story.”  So compelling is the pirate’s gravelly, strong voice, that Mr. Kern’s James takes on a new, lower-range, more resolved voice as together they sing “Hook.”  All around them, a pirate’s ship emerges with flapping sails, pirates swinging on rope’s rigging, and cannons booming. 

Just as J.M. listens to the winds of change to add a villain to his kid’s story of a wonderland far away, people surrounding him transform as they get caught up in the enchantment that his play begins to spark.  Tom Hewitt (Hook in J.M.’s dream) also plays J.M.’s American, theatrical producer, Charles Frohman.  He slowly lets his gruff, no-nonsense shell melt away to become the instigator for his whole troupe of stuffy, somewhat snotty actors to “Play.” In doing so, he leads them in a show-stopping pub scene where the adults totally let loose and reenact in song, dance, and clown-like antics their favorite, childhood games and nursery rhymes. 

Karen Murphy is Sylvia’s society mother, Mrs. Du Maurier, with an initial dislike nearing disgust for James and his immaturity of character -- as well as for boys who act too much like boys.  She too undergoes her own transformation, modulating her stern, piercing singing voice in “Circus of Your Mind” where she ridicules J.M.’s childish visions into a rich, warm, acceptance of “Neverland” as she eventually joins J.M., the boys, Charles, and the actors in declaring, “And with your hand in my hand, I am closer now to finding Neverland.” 

Time and again, Diane Paulus as Director takes the playful, inventive choreography of Mia Michaels and creates big ensemble numbers that zing with energy, fun, and pizzazz.  From the opening “Welcome to Neverland” to the closing “Finale,” the cast members bounce, jump, swing, swerve, twist, and high kick in both fully coordinated and highly individualized manners to create numbers that explode with kid-like spontaneity.  Particularly hilarious is a formal dinner party where the boys, J.M., and servants all become juveniles with tricks and treats that leave the audience in tears with laughter.

Much of the evening’s eye-popping attraction is due to an outstanding creative team that pulls no punches in imagining scenes that sparkle and amaze.  Scott Pask’s sets are full of the bright color and look of a child’s favorite picture book and recall for us scenes of a London long ago as well as the familiar (to most of us) sets of the musical we all adore, Peter Pan.  Kenneth Posner’s lighting design is a highlight in itself, especially in the shadowed effects created in “What You Mean to Me” where giant, darkened images of J.M. and Sylvia tell their own story.  Rolling clouds, shooting stars, city scenes, and travel through time are just some of the magic that Jon Driscoll’s glorious projections paint on the scenic canvas before us.  And from dancing bears to Nana the Dog, pirates to mermaids, city street folk to the upper echelons of London society, Suttirat Anne Larlarb dresses this cast in scores of costumes that are a show unto themselves.

How better can it be to see imagined the story behind the story of one of our all-time favorite characters, Peter Pan, and to witness it with music and dance; scenes and settings; and a cast of quirky, adorable, and lovable characters that together create an evening where nary a person leaves the auditorium without the biggest of smiles?  Thank you, SHN, for bringing Finding Neverland to a City that knows all about dreaming the unimaginable.

Rating: 5 E

Finding Neverland continues through February 12, 2017 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credits: Carol Rosegg

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