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Beautiful and gut-wrenching “Finding Neverland” at Wharton Center, East Lansing (Tour Review) December 13, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Broadway Tour.
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A beautiful touring production of “Finding Neverland” opened at East Lansing’s Wharton Center last night as it continues across the US following a solid Broadway run.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the story of this musical. If not, it follows JM Barrie’s creation of the stage play Peter Pan, based on his romance with Sylvia LLewelyn Davies and her children, drawing inspiration and ideas from them, as well as others in his life, including his mentor and theater impresario Charles Forhman.

Finding Neverland is about your imagination, and believing in yourself and those around you — but even more-so, it is about grief, and death, and finding strength in yourself, friends, and family, to go on with life, to see the beauty around you, and to reach for your dreams.

Barrie here is played by the remarkable Billy Harrigan Tighe and he is the most athletic and best dancer I have seen in this role (previously Matthew Morrison and Kevin Kern). His voice soars on Gary Barlow’s many ballads and pop numbers, as does that of the lovely Lael Van Keuren as Sylvia – here, interpreted as warmer and more socially engaged than in the Broadway production. Karen Murphy is outstanding as Sylvia’s mother, and never lets the requisite dourness overwhelm sadness and caring. Matthew Quinn took on the role of Frohman/Captain Hook and was wonderful last evening. He has terrific stage presence and a full voice. This part is normally played by John Davidson, but I can’t imagine anyone else filling those boots better. The entire ensemble is superb in their dance numbers and songs and the many characters they fill, from house servants to characters in Peter Pan.

All four of the Llewelyn Davies children are outstanding, including Ann Arbor’s own Connor Jameson Casey. The children rotate from performance to performance, but these are lovely full-bodied performances that never become too cute or too cloying. It all comes to a head in the gut-wrenching “When Your Feet don’t touch the ground” as Barrie counsels Peter to keep his thoughts (and emotions) above the clouds while Peter frets that he is forever tethered to reality. Its a lovely number that brings out the first big wave of hankies in the audience. But never fear, there are at least three more major tear-spillers to come and I won’t give those away.

Intact from the Broadway production are Diane Paulus’s very good direction, Mia Michaels clever choreography, Scott Pask’s beautiful set design with projections by Jon Driscoll and Lighting by Kenneth Posner. And never fear, the “air sculpting” of Daniel Wurtzel is here, and when the time comes, it looks magnificent in the Wharton Center’s tall proscenium.

For Broadway fans of the show, you will note that the first 20 minutes of the show is completely rewritten from the Broadway production — gone are the original “If the World turned upside Down” (it appears briefly later) and the rock-infused “Everyone in London is Here” performed post opening night — instead, characters are introduced in Kensington Gardens and action flows directly into the park scene, omitting opening night completely save for a few lines from Frohman. Instead, there is a peppy and clever opening number “Welcome to London” (new) and “My Imagination” which appears on the cover-album of songs from the show performed by celebrities (John Legend sings that one). This will no doubt be the version of the show that is released eventually for nationwide performance to other groups, so you’re seeing it here first. Still, I have never seen a Broadway show go out on tour with such an extensive re-write of the opening, especially when it worked well as it is on Broadway for 18 months.

I go on record as stating that I loved Finding Neverland in NYC, and I love it in its tour version. I particularly enjoyed Billy Harrigan Tighe’s performance as Barrie — in fact, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of him. But Neverland is just a good solid “modern” but “classic” American book musical. It doesn’t depend on spectacle, although there is some, and it doesn’t depend on music alone, although it sounds great; but it does depend on solid story-telling, and it has that here in spades. I found both Finding Neverland and An American in Paris to be far stronger musicals than Fun Home which won the Tony in 2015. What a joy to have had them both at Wharton Center in the first half of this touring season.

If you are cold-hearted and a dour-puss to begin with, this is probably not the show for you. But if you are like me, and are ready for an evening of laughter, entertainment, and some heartfelt and shamelessly manipulated emotion, you will love this beautiful production of Finding Neverland, performed with loving care, the second star from the right.

Very Highest Recommendation

Finding Neverland continues at the Wharton Center through December 17th. It returns to Detroit’s Fisher Theatre from February 6-18th.

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Laugh Your Seasonal Cares Away with “The Year Without a Panto Claus” at Theatre Nova December 4, 2017

Posted by ronannarbor in Theatre.
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Guest review by Wendy Wright

If you love slapstick, song and dance and sly political humor, then you need to run down to the Yellow Barn, where Theatre Nova is staging its annual Christmas “Panto” based on the classic holiday story “The Year Without a Santa Claus” called (what else) “The Year Without a Panto Claus”. As in past years this original piece is written by Founding Artistic Director, Carla Milarch and her frequent music collaborator R. MacKenzie Lewis. The direction is provided by Melissa Freilich.

If you are unfamiliar with this British Christmas tradition, Milarch described it perfectly in an interview she did recently with Emily Slomovits for the Ann Arbor District Library’s Pulp:

“I always describe a panto as a mash-up of a musical comedy, stand-up comedy, a vaudeville act, and an old-fashioned melodrama, with a heaping helping of The Three Stooges thrown in. There’s a good deal of falling down, chases, booing the villain, cheering the hero, political humor, and jokes — and, of course, candy for the kids.”

In summarizing this year’s show, Milarch continues:

“The premise of the play is that 2017 has been a bummer of a year, and Santa, like many of us, is starting to feel too depressed to carry on with life as usual. So, he decides to cancel Christmas. Jingle and Jangle the elves then set off on a hilarious journey to parts hither and yon to find some Christmas spirit to get Santa back in the saddle.”

Those who remember the characters of the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser will find a striking similarity between them and a couple of politicians who faced off a year ago. The new lyrics penned for Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and (my personal favorite) Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, will bring a chuckle or two.

The trio of actors playing multiple roles this year are Lisa Michaels, Ramona (Lucius) Burns and Scott Screws each of whom bringing their individual strengths to the stage. Michaels has a lovely singing voice, Burns can establish a real connection with the audience, while Screws has some wonderful comic timing. Alternating in the role of young Iggy are William Powers and Coleman Grengs. I was lucky enough to see Mr. Powers who, although only in fourth grade, has a list of professional credits and is clearly his mother (Milarch) and father’s (Phil Powers) son. He has presence and poise well beyond his years. Also joining the cast for each performance will be a different special guest. I saw the local duo Gemini who performed a song.

The sets by Forrest Hejkal, lights by Allan McMillan and costumes by Cal Schwartz are colorful and work well. The props by Becky Fox are fun and original. Director Freilich keeps the pace lively during the nonstop 100 minutes and I’m sure the lag in some of the more complicated transitions will smooth themselves out as the run continues.

The audience of all ages was smiling ear to ear. If you’re looking for some holiday fun for the entire family, this is the place to be.

Recommended

“The Year Without a Panto Clause” runs Dec. 1-31 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor. For tickets and more information, visit theatrenova.org.