Directed by Diane Paulus, Finding Neverland performed at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre is about igniting one’s imagination. It’s about wanting to be forever a “Toys R Us Kid”. Neverland is a place for which many of us search. Matthew Morrison plays J.M. Barrie, Teal Wicks plays Marrie Barris, Laura Michelle Kelly plays Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, Amy Yskima plays Peter Pan, and Eli Tokash plays Peter Llewelyn Davies. This musical is not about Peter Pan, but it is the story of how Peter became Pan. Similar to the movie, Saving Mr. Banks, which tells us the backstory of Mary Poppins, Finding Neverland, delves into the life of J.M. Barrie and into his inspiration for creating Peter Pan. Capturing our attention at the outset of the musical, the musical catapults the audience to new heights of imagination through Peter Pan and Tinkerbell as Peter Pan is suspended in the air on stage with the light of Tinkerbell glowing. Finding Neverland, initially and intermittently, transports us to the world of Peter Pan through its two most famous characters in the story. One of the lines of the musical, “If a man does not fight for what he wants, he deserves what he gets,” captures the essence of the story. Barrie fights with tenacity to create a good work, in spite of his creative team and his wife doubting his creative genius. Although the writing lacks depth initially, the creative team makes up for what the show lacks. Through great sound design (heightened by the clock ticking), stupendous set design with awesome video projections of London, and lighting that either highlights or darkens the story’s arc, Paulus directs a performance that leaves one’s imagination ignited and one glad for taking a risk at seeing a musical that was not Tony nominated.
As the musical progressed, I became more enraptured with the story. This story was written for two audiences- children and adults. Young audiences will laugh and smile throughout the show. The dinner scene will leave them hungering and salivating for more scenes in which many of the adults are allowed to behave as children. The unfolding of the plot, and the sensitivity in which the story is told, allows the adults to empathize with the struggles of some of the main characters; however, the first half does not lend itself to connecting with Barrie’s difficulties. Everyone experiences difficulty that impedes his ability to create, but the devastation that Barrie must have felt at his lack of success in developing a new story, was not conveyed easily during the first half. There was no initial sense of devastation, or despair. Despite this shortcoming in the writing, the rest of the performace provides welcomed creative excitement that allows the audience to be overwhelmed with joy for Barrie, yet sorrowful for the Llwelyn Davies family. One of the more magnificent lines delivered in the musical is that without shadows there is no light. The lighting conveys the shadows of sorrow as well as the joys of tomorrow as Barrie’s life takes different turns with the Llwelyn Davies family. One knows no joy without having experienced sorrow.
The scene design was totally brilliant. Having recently traveled to London, the scene transported me back to London through video projections of London’s famous landmarks. The scenes in the park and in the Davies’s home were realistic. The juxtaposition of Davie’s home life, through the scenic design, with that of Barrie’s provides a great contrast to underscore how Barrie’s heart became tethered to Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her children.
The musical, through its sound design, gives the audience the impression that time is of the essence. Clocks ticking throughout the performance possibly let us know that time is fleeting, and that Barrie is running out of time for his next great creation. Like the old TV show, we wonder whether Barrie will “beat the clock.” Time runs out for Llewelyn Davies, but the clock keeps ticking for Barrie and the children. Imagine hearing tick tock, tick tock increasing in intensity throughout the performance as video projections of a clock illuminate the stage.
The acting performances were solid; however, the writing does not foster stellar moving performances. Many of the acting scenes, except for the dinner scene, the scene with Captain Hook, and the scene before the intermission were not emotionally charged. The special effects, the set design with all its glitz and glamour pull one into the story and into the emotional sequence of events. We understand Barrie’s heartbreak when Sylvia discloses her illness. Although beautifully acted, it lacks emotional intensity in the dialogue.
As a total performance Finding Neverland is worth seeing. The music is beautifully sung and some of the songs are powerfully delivered. It is enjoyable, but not at the level of some of the best musicals that grace Broadway’s stage. Adolescents and precocious young children will delight in seeing this musical. Many adults will like it for its creativity. It’s not Hamilton, The Lion King, or the original Les Mis, but for half price at TKTS, it’s definitely a great afternoon or evening night out. The audience leaves knowing that there is always hope for tomorrow and that brighter days are ahead in spite of life’s challenges and disappointments.