J.M. Barrie is in a rut.
It’s 1903, and the Scottish playwright’s latest is playing to a half-empty house on London’s West End. His producer, Charles Frohman, and the acting company are eager for another hit, and Barrie’s just not feeling it. Life at home with his wife, Mary, is in a rut, too.
A day at the park is in order, and Barrie heads to Kensington Gardens with his notebook to finish up on his latest play. There he meets the Llewelyn Davies boys – George, Peter, Jack and Michael – and their cheerful mother, Sylvia. That fateful day not only changes Barrie’s life and the lives of the Davies family, but it changes popular culture forever.
Inspired by a true story, and based on a 2004 Johnny Depp-Kate Winslet film, the musical “Finding Neverland” tells how Barrie came to create his most famous play, “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” And along the way, he helps the boys deal with their grief, and they help him deal with his.
Now on stage in Spokane as part of STCU’s Best of Broadway series, the national tour of “Finding Neverland” sports a winning cast and excellent stagecraft.
As Barrie, Jeff Sullivan bring a nice voice and good command of the stage to his role. His Barrie is not at all above putting on an eye patch and playing pirates with a group of boys, or inviting children to a dinner party at a time when children were seen, not heard. His vocal work, especially in the lovely duets with Ruby Gibbs as Sylvia (“What You Mean to Me”) and Ethan Stokes as Peter (“When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground”) was engaging.
As Sylvia, the upbeat widowed mother with a nagging illness – never a good thing to have in Edwardian England – Gibbs is a winsome stage presence. She brought emotional resonance to her performance of “Sylvia’s Lullaby” and a great energy to the night overall.
The young actors playing the Davies boys Thursday night – Stokes, Paul Schoeller, Caleb Reese Paul and Brody Bett – all deserve high praise. Each performed beautifully, and their performance of “We’re All Made of Stars” was particularly moving.
Indeed, most of the performances were entertaining, especially Conor McGiffin as Frohman; Josh Dunn as his assistant, Elliot; and Emmanuelle Zeesman as Mrs. Du Maurier. And the actors in Frohmans’ troupe were delightful; I particularly enjoyed a “who’s on first?”-style bit centered on the last name “Darling.” Still, there were some acting choices among the ensemble that struck me as unnecessarily weird, to the point of distraction. Not sure that much comic relief was needed.
The only major issue I have with “Finding Neverland” is the music. It’s perfectly pleasing, but it washed over me. Not one song is stuck in my head the next day, even after listening to the original cast recording a few times before the show.
Whatever quibbles I had with the show, and they were relatively minor, are ameliorated by the show’s set design and staging. “Finding Neverland” employs a relatively simple set, but makes great use of digital projection to enhance the story. There are some great set pieces, too, especially “We Own the Night,” in which Barrie, the Davieses and Barrie’s servants escape a boring dinner party in their own audacious style. “Play,” featuring Frohman, Barrie, Sylvia, and the acting troupe set in a pub is high energy and fun.
Then there’s the “Neverland” reprise near the end of Act II. Barrie leads the cast of “Peter Pan” to the Davies home so the ailing Sylvia and her whole family can see the show. It’s a marvelous scene, with Peter and Wendy flying around, pirates causing havoc, and Nana the dog and the crocodile there for good measure. When Sylvia takes center stage, she’s soon joined by Peter Pan, who unleashes a tornado of pixie dust onto the stage. It’s a beautiful moment and it just looked so cool. It helps bring a little magic into what could be a maudlin moment.
So if for any reason you’re tempted to take off at intermission, don’t. Because if you do, you’ll be missing something special.
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