I must have been about eight-years-old when I jumped off the couch in our family room and fractured my wrist. I was trying to fly and had gallantly tied a bed sheet around my neck in an attempt to soar through the air. Grounded for the season (not by my parents, but by the injury), I set up shop at the kitchen table with my dad’s old dopp kit filled with markers and crayons and a stack of poster board, provided by my mother who I’m sure hoped that a more sedentary expression of my creativity would be the safer route.
Whether it’s building forts in the backyard, donning imaginary crowns and riding unicorns through the forest and muck, or simply flopping, jumping and skipping around—children, by natural order, cannot help being creative. Finding Neverland, the new Broadway musical that opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, is a Technicolor celebration of the imagination. Brought to life by director Diane Paulus and a stellar creative team, you can’t help but leave with a smile on your face—well earned after shedding a few tears throughout.
Based on the life of J.M. Barrie, Finding Neverland follows the famous author’s trials and tribulations as he struggles to break free from the workhorse ethics of London’s theater scene circa early 20th century. Unhappily married and creatively stifled, Barrie finds solace in the children of the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whom he meets in the park. Their exuberance inspires him to rethink his professional trajectory as he invents the world of Peter Pan, finally giving voice to his childish fancies, with much protest from his producer Charles Frohman.
With a book by James Graham and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, Finding Neverland is accessible Broadway pixie dust. Sweeping melodies and punctuated patter give away to a solidly crafted storyline that offers enough innuendo for adults while still satisfying audience members who require booster seats. But it is Paulus’s vision, as realized through scenic (Scott Pask), costume (Suttirat Anne Larlarb), lighting (Kenneth Posner), sound (Jonathan Deans) and projection (Jon Driscoll) design that elevates what could be standard fare to an immersive feast of the senses. Emmy Award-winning choreographer Mia Michaels interjects a new vocabulary of movement onto the Broadway stage. Anyone familiar with her work knows of her visceral and uncompromising vision, and the pairing of Paulus and Michaels as a creative team is stuff that dreams are made of.
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Leading the cast as J.M. Barrie, Matthew Morrison is serviceable, perhaps caught too much in his inner dialogue after six seasons in front of the camera on the hit television show, Glee. The fire in Barrie’s belly is often reduced to embers, save the Act I finale, “Stronger,” where Morrison finally comes alive. The supporting cast, including Kelsey Grammer as Barrie’s producer, Teal Wick’s as his wife, Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and Carolee Carmello as Sylvia’s mother, is all top-notch. But it is the ensemble that steals the show—packed with dynamic, character-specific performances that make one wonder why there isn’t a Tony Award for such collaborative efforts. Paul Slade Smith and Josh Lamon as actors of the play within the play are merely two examples of the quirky characterizations that appear throughout.
As for the Llewelyn Davies children (portrayed at this performance by Aidan Gemme, Christopher Paul Richards, Sawyer Nunes and Alex Dreier), Paulus miraculously reigns in their performances, allowing them to just be kids without histrionics. While they exhibit the playful rambunctiousness that one might expect to inspire Barrie’s creation of Peter Pan, they are also children who have lost their father.
That deep longing for love, acceptance and unabashed creative freedom runs deep throughout Finding Neverland. It is why we jump off couches as children and why we quit jobs as adults. It is why we sometimes leave marriages and at other times fight for our true love. It is why, as J.M. Barrie wrote, “Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.”
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