Few stories are more iconic in literature than Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie’s tales about Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. And even less common are interesting tales about the inspiration behind the stories that become the archetypes that everyone recognizes. With Finding Neverland, now playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center, we are gifted the magic of Peter Pan, the reality of a tough life, and one of the most interesting and emotional stories-behind-the-story in all of literary history. The tale itself is special, but this musical stage adaptation is 10 times better than the original 2004 Johnny Depp movie version. Finding Neverland is a joyful, creative, moving, romantic, and — the best part — great for the entire family!
From the jewel-toned opening curtain to the instantly recognizable scampering Tinkerbell light, to the star-filled sky backdrop, and the projected scenes of London, the setting (designed by Tony Award® winner Scott Pask) becomes the first star of this show. When the curtain opens and the cast of Peter Pan populates the stage, the second star is revealed: Mia Michaels, Emmy Award® winning choreographer best known for her breathtaking dances on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” And the third? All of those dancers and singers need direction, and who better to give this starry fantasy life than Tony Award winner Diane Paulus? Finally, a musical is not a musical without music and lyrics, and Finding Neverland’s beautiful songs come from Gary Barlow and Grammy® winner Eliot Kennedy.
Rarely does a cast come together in such a way that each cast member supports the others; and none outshines their cast mates (well, except for one very large tan dog that every audience member wanted to take home). The voices in this musical are stellar. Not a one is weak or unbelievable. Even when little Peter (the adorable Mitchell Wray) stretches for a note, it’s endearing, and gives so much more depth to his character that the biggest guys in the audience had tears in their eyes.
This is a musical about a writer unable to write a musical, but instead inspired to create one of the best-known characters in all of literature. When we first meet James Barrie (played by the fabulous, golden-voiced Billy Harrigan Tighe), he’s that struggling writer, who has begun to have issues both in his career but also personally. His strident wife, Mary (played with an appropriate snobbiness by Kristine Reese), doesn’t understand James. and basically leaves the door open for him to fall in love with someone else — and he does.
In the park one day, Barrie meets the loving and widowed mother Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (played by Wicked star Christine Dwyer) and her four active boys, Peter (Krieger), George (Finn Faulconer), Jack (Tyler Patrick Hennessy), and Michael (Jordan Cole). The boys are playing a pirate game, which the mother joins. Barrie’s fascinated; but his American producer, Charles Frohman (played with an appropriately nasty but lovable edge by Rory Donovan), reminds him “tick tock.”
For anyone familiar with Peter Pan, those “tick-tock” moments that provide allusions to the Barrie stories are delightful, and this reviewer overhead audience members testing each other on those memorable lines.
It is surprising that the musical hasn’t won notable awards, because so many of the songs are memorable and gorgeously sung by powerhouse talents. Billy Tighe’s version of “My Imagination” starts out as simply nice but becomes sweet, then the strength of both the words and his voice elevates it to a beautiful finish.
Just as moving is Christine Dwyer’s voice as she navigates the fragile and delicate story of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies’ life in “All That Matters.” Sylvia’s control and her need to stay upbeat for her sons foreshadows her own sickness and gorgeously portrayed death.
The musical’s skillfully written book (by Olivier Award® nominee James Graham) provides rich and round characters: Barrie is both lovable and flawed. In his own lifetime, his dalliance with a married woman was scandalous, yet we know that Sylvia is a better woman than Mary and that her boys need Barrie’s ability to be the adult-child in their lives after they lose their second parent. How can we not deny he’s a passionate, caring man who saw the true childlike stories of what flies in the sky at night?
Some of the best lines of the evening belong to secondary characters, such as Mrs. du Maurier (made delightfully nasty by Broadway vet Karen Murphy). One of the biggest laughs of the night was when she said, “Children are meant to be seen but not heard.” And when Sylvia says that, “All that matters now is where I go from here,” the audience sighs with the recognition of feeling the same way.
Any story about these characters would not be complete without some stage magic, and this show is replete with it. Some special effects are simply surprising, while others are so pretty that the audience gasps. The starry sky that the boys dream of flying into is so spectacular that it will thrill both children and adults alike. Pirates walk planks, dogs act like nannies, fairies flicker throughout the audience, true love becomes the kind you want to emulate, little boys can fly through the stars, and adults live forever as children.
SECOND OPINION: May 24th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com review by Jeffrey Kare: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-FINDING-NEVERLAND-National-Tour-at-Durham-Performing-Arts-Center-20170524 and May 16th BWW TV interview with Christine Dwyer, conducted by Jeffrey Kare: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-TV-Christine-Dwyer-of-FINDING-NEVERLAND-National-Tour-20170516; May 24th Burlington, NC Times-News review by Logan A. White for “Teens & Twenties”: http://teensandtwenties.com/finding-neverland-a-journey-into-imagination/ and May 18th preview by Logan A. White for “Teens & Twenties”: http://teensandtwenties.com/finding-neverland-star-on-craft-character-creativity/; May 17th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article150995082.html; May 16th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/entertainment/article150798072.html; and Oct. 11, 2016 New York, NY Playbill.com preview by Andrew Gans: http://www.playbill.com/article/finding-neverland-national-tour-opens-tonight. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the May 23rd Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/05/on-may-23-28-finding-neverland-will-show-dpac-audiences-how-peter-became-the-pan/.)
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents FINDING NEVERLAND at 7:30 p.m. May 24 and 25, 8 p.m. May 26, 2 and 8 p.m. May 27, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. May 28 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
Tickets: $40 and up, plus taxes. Click here for DPAC Special Offers.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/2209739.
GROUP RATES (12+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.
THE TOUR: http://findingneverlandthemusical.com/, https://www.ibdb.com/tour-production/finding-neverland–500948, https://www.facebook.com/FindingNeverlandTheMusical, https://twitter.com/neverlandbway, and https://www.youtube.com/user/NeverlandTheMusical.
TOUR CAST/CREATIVE TEAM: http://findingneverlandthemusical.com/cast/.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 24th, and 8 p.m. Friday, May 26th, performances.
Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up or Peter and Wendy (1904 play and 1911 novel): https://www.britannica.com/topic/Peter-Pan-play-by-Barrie (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_and_Wendy (Wikipedia).
Sir J.M. Barrie (Scottish actor, dramatist, and novelist, nee James Matthew Barrie, 1860-1937): https://www.britannica.com/biography/J-M-Barrie (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://jmbarrie.co.uk/ (Dafydd Brown’s fan site), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/james-m-barrie-6613 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0057381/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._M._Barrie (Wikipedia).
The Man Who Was Peter Pan (1998 play): http://jmbarrie.co.uk/msgbrd/index.php?topic=48.0 (JMBarrie.co.uk web page).
Allan Knee (playwright and screenwriter): http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsK/knee-allan.html (Dollee.com: The Playwrights Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/allan-knee-4078 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0460632/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Knee (Wikipedia).
Finding Neverland (2004 film): https://www.miramax.com/movie/finding-neverland/ (official website), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0308644/ (Internet Movie Database), http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/452507/Finding-Neverland/ (Turner Classic Movies), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finding_Neverland_(film) (Wikipedia).
Finding Neverland (2015 Broadway and 2017 West End musical): http://findingneverlandthemusical.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/finding-neverland-498336 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finding_Neverland_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Gary Barlow (music and lyrics): http://www.garybarlow.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/gary-barlow-498339 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0055239/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Barlow (Wikipedia).
Eliot Kennedy (music and lyrics): http://smatalent.com/kennedy-eliot/ (SMA Talent bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/eliot-kennedy-498340 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1590293/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eliot_Kennedy (Wikipedia).
James Graham (book): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/james-graham-498338 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3037341/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Graham_(playwright) (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater, music, and dance reviews. She is also a writer, editor, writing coach at Reno’s Literary Services of Durham. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.