There are many a show that flourish on the themes of the importance of imagination. Take, for example, Broadway in Chicago’s latest, Finding Neverland, now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. This tale offers up the back story to the creation of the perennial boy who wouldn’t grow up, Peter Pan. With a book by James Graham including lines like, “be what you want to be” and songs written by composers and lyricists Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, including “Dream the Dream,” it would seem the correct team was in place to craft something magnificent. With director Diane Paulus at the helm, this ship, I am sad to say, never really took off. The action doesn’t get going until about 25 minutes into the story. While the initial run played for 17 months on Broadway, Neverland did garner the 2015 Fan Favorite Award for Favorite New Musical. Astonishing though, it was nominated for a whopping zero Tony Awards and was also notorious for Kelsey Grammer’s abrupt departure soon after. Based on the 2004 Academy Award-winning Miramax film, Finding Neverland had a great deal of surface charm, but is truly lacking substantive gravitas to pack any real emotional wallop.
This original musical focuses on the family at the heart of inspiration for Peter Pan. The real Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up here is J.M. Barrie (Kevin Kern) a highly imaginative author who is tasked to write a new hit play by theater owner and producer, Charles Frohman (Tom Hewitt) the villain with no real teeth. Or in this case, hook. He preens around the stage well enough, but generating essential conflict, he does not. While seeking inspiration for a new play, Barrie headed to a London park where he encountered Sylvia Llewelyn (Christine Dwyer) a beautiful and kind natured widow with a team of boys of her own. Peter and Michael, names familiar to any “Lost Boy” found on the stage or any fan of the material in the audience. Peter (Ben Krieger) in particular was saddened by his own father’s passing and is reticent to initially connect with the “replacement father figure” that was Barrie. Only when Sylvia takes ill, does this family begin to gel. There is a little subplot early on centering on the salacious gossip surrounding married Barrie and widowed Sylvia and the exorbitant amount of time spent playing with her children. Surprisingly, this plot device doesn’t resonate as scandalous to the audience. Barrie’s wife is portrayed so one note selfish that when she has an affair, she is quickly dismissed and forgotten entirely. That is the issue with most of the supporting cast on display. There are so many one note, ancillary characters at play, they are mostly just a fleeting, momentary distraction.
I wish to spoil nothing, but anyone familiar with the tale knows the mother doesn’t live to see the end. The most mesmerizing visual of the show is the scene when she passes. Surrounded by enough wind machines to rival a Beyoncé concert, and an array of golden confetti pieces showering from stage floor to the rafters, that moment was just striking. The musical could have ended there, but alas whimpers on for another 15 minutes. Inspiring coos and applause every time he crossed the stage, kudos must be given to animal trainer William Berloni. The family dog hit his marks flawlessly the entire production. Rounding out the creative team, Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s period costumes were lovely, as was Scott Pask’s scenic design. The back drops relied heavily on projection design crafted by Jon Driscoll. Lastly, Mia Michaels choreography was at best, a mixed bag. The vertical hopping about of the chorus in the opening number fashioned an odd visual. As the story progressed, the elegant lines crafted in the couples musical interludes were romantic enough while remaining firmly family friendly.
If a lovely score and genial story made for a fantastic musical experience, Finding Neverland would soar like a bird. Or, more appropriately, a Tinker Bell type fairy. This one never fully earned it’s wings. There were quick moments of magic, but alas they were too few and far between. About 20 minutes too long, Finding needs to look for surer footing to really set sail. A more compelling and dastardly villain would be where I would start. There needed to be much more drama to really grab the viewer. Rick Elice’s Peter and the Starcatcher certainly proved that to be true with surprisingly similar subject matter. However, if you are looking for an agreeable family outing activity, Finding Neverland is a safe bet.
Broadway in Chicago’s Finding Neverland is now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through December 4, 2016