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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