Friday, April 24, 2015

How 'Finding Neverland' Finally Finds Its Way

Broadway has long indulged a fascination with the cherished tale of Peter Pan.
But the truth is that Peter scored its greatest successes in this country through television and the movies.
It was the landmark 1950s live musical presentation of Peter Pan on NBC-TV (with the legendary Broadway star Mary Martin in the title role) that put Peter Pan on the map for Americans. Then, of course there was the animated Walt Disney telling of Peter and his lost boys. You can add to this the less-successful Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts, Robin Williams 1991 movie Hook (which focused on the story's villain) and the most recent live TV Peter Pan (again on NBC) starring Allison Williams which proved to be an impressive triumph.
There's money in Peter Pan, lots of it.
And Harvey Weinstein knew this when in 2004 he gave us the movie Finding Neverland, based on the play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee.
Finding Neverland is really the story of the playwright J. M. Barrie and his personal and creative journey -- a story which culminates in the writing of Peter Pan. Liking many successful vehicles of this sort, it's the story behind the story.
Now, Finding Neverland has come to Broadway as a new musical (again produced by Weinstein) and starring Matthew Morrison as Barrie, Kelsey Grammer as his producer (who becomes the model for Captain Hook), Teal Wicks as his wife, Laure Michelle Kelly as the "other" woman that he falls in love with and Carolee Carmello as his future mother-in-law.
Finding Neverland operates on two levels. One level involves the nature of creativity -- the blessing and the curse -- and the ongoing struggles of a creative person as he searches to find his way, to be understood, to be faithful to his craft, to be successful but still accepted and respected as an artist --and to balance all this with the everyday demands of his personal life.
On Broadway, this is a story that has best been told in the unforgettable play, Amadeus (the tale of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) and the musical Sunday In The Park With George (the story of painter George Seurat) which garnered a Pulitzer Prize.
In Amadeus, we knew that the protagonist would write great music that would withstand the test of time. After all, he was a child prodigy. In "Sunday," we knew that the show would culminate in the great painting that gave the story its name. Yet, through music, drama, excellent casting and inventive devices both these shows were able to more than retain our interest and envelope us in the story.
The story of creative struggle is a tough one to dramatize because it is an internal story -- a story of the mind.
In Finding Neverland, we know that the tale will lead us to Peter Pan but we're not sure how all the pieces will fit together. As the story unfolds, Barrie gets to know four children who have no father. These are the children of the widow who he falls in love with; who he leaves his wife for. Drawing from his time with these boys, he writes a story about children who don't want to grow up.
And so, on another level the show is a love story -- a story of love reinvented, shared, deeply held and eventually treasured in perpetuity. This is a story of the heart, an easier story to tell, a more enticing story.
But the show takes a long, sometimes shrill and sometimes noisy first act to set the story up and get us to the point where Peter Pan is ready to come to life. At times, it seems like everybody is screaming at one another. And this isn't helped by the 13-piece pit band which doesn't seem up to the task -- maybe it's the sound and/or the acoustics, who knows?
Yet, there are some standout moments, most notably in the imaginary "Dinner Party" number, the poignant "Neverland" and the vivid "Circus of Your Mind" which focuses on the frustrating effects of an imaginative, nimble mind on all those who are exposed to it. Still, the grand, closing first act number "Stronger' can seem cacophonous and over-produced at times.
Then, in the second act Finding Neverland really finds its way. And suddenly, delightful tinges of redemption alight, sorta like Tinker Bell casting a spell over the whole business.
In the whimsical number "Play" we discover the real essence of creativity -- retaining a childlike wonder and a lively sense of play. And poignant, beautiful, revealing moments unfold in the numbers "The World Is Upside Down, What You Mean To Me, We're All Made of Stars, When Your Feet Don't Touch The Ground" and "Something About This Night."
The show turns tender, nuanced and heartfelt, opening itself up with really magical moments and alluring stagecraft. There's whimsy and imagination here and it's beautiful, sensitive and inspiring without being the least bit maudlin. There's a depth and gentleness to it. And there are important life lessons intertwined with the music, the story, the characters and their journeys.
Finding Neverland flows into port like a dreamboat and delivers a powerful sense of wonderment, tying up loose ends and bringing us full circle.
Special kudos to Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer, Carolee Carmello and Aidan Gemme who played the real-life Peter in version that we saw.
This is an emotional, heart-tugging, multi-generational show and if you're patient and willing to dream again, Finding Neverland will amply reward you.

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