Review by Alan Jozwiak of Finding Neverland: Broadway in Cincinnati
A boy who could fly. A pirate with a hook for a hand. A fairy who can fly. Mermaids in the sea, and more.
This improbable set of plot elements is part of one of the most beloved children’s stories of all time–J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. What fans of Peter Pan might not realize is that the story they loved as children was originally a play and that play almost did not see the light of day.
The story of how Peter Pan almost didn’t make it to the stage and the real-life inspiration behind those beloved characters forms the basis of Finding Neverland, the latest musical by Broadway in Cincinnati. Based off the 2004 Academy Award-winning film by the same name, Finding Neverland shows what happens when artistically stuck playwright J.M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) meets recently widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Lael Van Keuren) and her four children. What emerges is the inspiration for the characters and situations within the play Peter Pan.
This is a lavish production with outstanding visual elements. The end of the first act has Barrie and Captain Hook (John Davidson) on stage as a pirate ship is created on stage around them. Also at the end of the second act, there is a beautiful stage exit for Sylvia Davies that involves glitter, a shawl, and wind machines (I won’t say any more so as not to spoil the effect. It is truly touching).
The strong visuals, combined with strong acting and singing by the cast, are able to overcome some of the shortcomings of the musical. This musical does not have many memorable songs (“Play” being perhaps the most memorable, similar in intention to the Les Miz song “Master of the House”) and the ending with the death of Sylvia Davies gets glossed over in favor of an uplifting ending, which feels a bit out of place.
However, I can say that I truly enjoyed the experience of seeing this show. After a hard day’s work, it was a delightful respite and the acting alone made it wonderful to watch. Harrigan Tighe played J.M. Barrie to American tastes, playing his part more like a cool uncle who likes to horseplay than a British literary figure who can use his imagination like a child. Harrigan Tighe has a beautful voice and sings very well, displaying his vocal prowess in his solo parts in the song “Stronger.”
Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Lael Van Keuren) is also a vocal standout. Van Kueruen shows a nice range for belting out the song “All that Matters” to the softer “Sylvia’s Lullaby.” Similarly, the Davies children were also strong actors and singers. The children Peter (Connor Jameson Casey), George (Bergman Freedman), Jack (Wyatt Cirbus), and Michael (Tyler Partrick Hennessy) acted naturally like ordinary children who could beautifully harmonize when needed. Their solo song “We’re All Made of Stars” was a highpoint in Act II.
Special kudos also needs to go to John Davidson. Davidson lights up the stage when he enters, whether playing his dual roles as the acerbic theater producer Charles Frohman or the wiley Captain Hook. This is not surprising because Davidson is THE John Davidson from TV’s That’s Incredible and The Hollywood Squares, as well as appearing in a wide array of Broadway shows. I had not realized that it was Davidson when I saw this show, making it a double delight to see this talented performer in action.
A telling note for the strength of a Broadway touring show is how well they cast their supporting roles. Finding Neverland had many standouts in this department, from the bumbling stage manager Elliot (played to perfection in the performance I saw by the swing Matthew Quinn), the pompous actor Mr. Henshaw (played by Dwelvan David), and the proper society matron Mrs. du Maurier (played wonderfully by Karen Murphy).
In short, this play proves what I always say about playwrights–they are awesome creatures that deserve more credit and respect. In Finding Neverland, we see how one playwright finds his inspiration by going, in the words of Peter Pan himself, past the second star to the right, and straight on till morning.
Finding Neverland runs from November 7-19, 2017 at the Aronoff Center for the Arts. For ticketing information, go to the Aronoff Center box office in person or online at CincinnatiArts.org.