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'Finding Neverland' reignites adult imaginations at Shea's

The human imagination is a muscle that atrophies with age.

For many, the innate creative impulse rarely survives past adolescence. That’s when adult ambitions begin to crowd out childhood daydreams and “fun” becomes an abstract concept, like Narnia or quantum physics.

Without treatment, this condition can lead to terminal dullness, perpetual anxiety and an inability to enjoy oneself at all.

Luckily, there’s a prescription, and it’s playing through Saturday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center.

“Finding Neverland,” the glittering if overwrought musical about the genesis of “Peter Pan” that launched its national tour Sunday after holding technical rehearsals in Shea’s, succeeds in reacquainting theatergoers with their forgotten capacity for wonder.

The show, with factory-made music by British pop singer Gary Barlow, keen lyrics by Eliot Kennedy and a sentimental book by James Graham, delves into the creation of one of literature’s most beloved characters. Set in turn-of-the-century London, the musical focuses on the playwright J.M. Barrie and the family who inspired him to create Neverland and its marginally insane band of forever-children.

The production starts strong with the scene-setting song “Welcome to London,” a generic piece of major-key musical optimism elevated by Mia Michaels’ tongue-in-cheek choreography. We soon meet all the major players as they swirl through Kensington Gardens: a forlorn Barrie (Kevin Kern), stuck in a creative rut; the five Llewelyn Davies boys and their widowed mother (Christine Dwyer); the put-upon American theater producer Charles Frohman (Tom Hewitt); and an ensemble of dapper Londoners retrofitted to American stereotypes of the haughty British aristocracy.

The show is at its strongest when Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies boys (a rotating cast too numerous to name) are living inside one another’s imaginations. The strongest example is a pair of songs set in Barrie’s opulent house during a dinner party, where the stodgy adults freeze in place and Barrie and the boys run amok in a way that instantly evokes the Lost Boys of lore. The scene is shot through with beautifully choreographed moments of revelation and humor, a special skill of director Diane Paulus.

Director Diane Paulus and producer Harvey Weinstein talk before the start of the rehearsal Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, of "Finding Neverland," a musical he produced and which is launching its national tour. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

Director Diane Paulus and producer Harvey Weinstein talk before the start of the rehearsal Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, of "Finding Neverland," a musical he produced and which is launching its national tour. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

[Related: Interview with 'Finding Neverland' producer and UB alum Harvey Weinstein]

The Act One closers, “Hook” and “Strong,” also are thrilling. They provide a glimpse into Barrie’s tortured conscience, torn between the freedom of his youth and the crushing demands of adulthood as personified by the evil Captain Hook (Hewitt).

Where the musical falters is in its bland and boilerplate score, much of which mimics the mass-produced, unoffensive fluff you’ll hear on “The X Factor” or “The Voice,” with cloying nods to Stephen Schwartz’s “Wicked” and Markéta Irglová and Glen Hansard’s score for “Once.” Exceptions include the ballad “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” a duet with Barrie and young Peter Llewelyn Davies (Ben Krieger) and a touching finale brimming with energy.

A massive tech load-in for national tour "Finding Neverland" takes place at Shea's. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

A massive tech load-in for national tour "Finding Neverland" takes place at Shea's. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

[Related: Photos of the massive tech load-in at Shea's]

Another drawback is the production’s overreliance on animated projections by Jon Driscoll, which work directly against the production’s goal of reactivating adult imaginations and obscure Scott Pask’s enchanting sets. In a song literally titled “My Imagination,” those projections signal to audience members that they need not exercise theirs.

Despite Barlow’s tepid score and failing to trust theatergoers’ imaginative abilities, the production is shot through with charming moments imbued by Paulus and her gifted cast with an almost magical quality at points.

This is especially true toward the end, which features one of the more enchanting and captivating stage pictures I’ve seen in years. But I won’t give it away. You’ll have to use your imagination.

THEATER REVIEW

“Finding Neverland”

3 stars (out of four)

Musical through Oct. 15 in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are $35 to $85.

Call 847-1410 or visit sheas.org.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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