Finding Neverland greets the Portland new year with a brief run on the Keller Auditorium stage, where it opened Tuesday night and continues through Sunday, Jan. 8, in the Broadway in Portland series. The musical kicked off its national tour in October, after passed the Great White Way’s litmus test by winning audiences and a passel of awards, including the Drama Desk, Astaire and Drama League.
True to the title, Finding Neverland is a semi-historical, but winsome look at how and why Scottish author J.M. Barrie came to write the beloved Peter Pan series. Part of the true story goes that Barrie was on the cricket team with the most dexterous vocabulary of all time: H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, A.A. Milne, to name a few. The team also included a man named George Llewelyn Davies, who had married into famed British author Daphne Du Maurier’s family. Barrie became the guardian to Llewelyn Davies’ sons, George, John, Nicholas, Michael and Peter.
The musical is based on a 1998 play by Allen Knee and was hatched under the careful eye of producer Harvey Weinstein in 2012. Weinstein picked the cream of the crop in British pop music talent to score Finding Neverland by choosing Take That chart-toppers Gary Barlow, OBE, and his longtime collaborator Eliot Kennedy. Barlow, who was put in charge of Queen Elizabeth II’s recent 86th birthday bash, is known as a lady’s singer, much like our Adam Levine of Maroon 5. His approach is romantic, inspired by equal parts Elton John and Paul McCartney love ballads.
Numbers such as My Imagination, Play, We’re All Made of Stars and the hit Neverland personify the musical’s characters in a traditional musical structure as the drama unfolds, while keeping the catchy pop-rock refrains Barlow and Kennedy are known for.
The touring Broadway show matches in talent, with performers who’ve paid their dues in hit shows in New York and London, among them RENT, Hair, Wicked, Jesus Christ Superstar.
Finding Neverland is an intricate puzzle of interlocking plays within plays. Just as you’re hoping the adult characters onstage gravitate back to the magic of childhood, Finding Neverland is working on you with hints of memories from the Pan books (which, in fact, Barrie wrote after the original play became a hit). The moment when Wendy (Adrianne Chu) helps Peter (Colin Wheeler) sew his shadow back on and has a bit of a brush with the feral child’s obstinance, we remember why we loved the series and all its incarnations on stage and in film over the years.
Kevin Kern’s J.M. Barrie is a guileless adult in active rebellion against the boring and imagination-killing restrictions grownups imprison themselves with. He’s light on his feet, with a pure singing voice that sweeps the audience to his youthful side of the debate.
Barrie’s straight man in the comic moments is an old theater bulldog producer named Charles, played by Tom Hewitt. He approaches the character like a stuffed figure of Parliament, with a whole lot of Monty Python physical humor. Hewitt’s character is given the funniest lines: Do you know what man’s greatest invention is? Inside. The inside. (See current weather forecast for references. )
The Llewelyn Davies boys, a ragtag group bereaved by recent close family deaths, are brought out of mourning by reimagining a city park as ground zero for pirates, fairies, crocodiles, a playground for the school-age mischief of treasure-hunters. Their lust for life, tempered by great odds, inspires in Barrie his escape from a writer’s – and life’s – tedium. The number We’re All Made of Stars starts off with a few simple chords on a ukulele, an inviting gesture that in no time blows up into a full power-pop song, the kind of anthem that’s pure sticky and sugary fun. The Llewelyn Davies boys draw us into the power of play, as much as they do Kern’s Barrie.
The boy’s mother, Sylvia (Christine Dwyer) cuts a striking figure for Kern’s Berrie. Like the gold-standard musicals – think The Music Man or The Sound of Music – Sylvia and Berrie try to keep their forbidden love under wraps, but can do so for only so long. Their duet What You Mean to Me is a heartwarming relief, and as the two find each other’s arms, their long shadows dance off the walls like a puppet play, spinning, reposing, and drawing back into a magnetic embrace.
The shadow is a theme that appears throughout Finding Neverland. The boy’s missing father, Barrie’s struggles with a middle-class English life, and Sylvia’s eventual fate, a tearjerking metaphysical punch to the gut, hanging over our heads. During We’re All Made of Stars the boys are putting on their own play with monsters and princesses, but it’s cut short as Sylvia begins to cough up blood.
Christine Dwyer plays the role as the down-to-earth pretty girl next door who knows best. She’s the crux, like most mothers, that binds everyone together. She has a slow march, but the exact minute she’s taken to Neverland, the place where no one ages and conflicts are fleeting, the stars illuminate the backdrop sky and a whirl of glittering dust consumes her to the great beyond. It’s a dignified, but nearly cinematic, release into the next life.
Most of the time in Finding Neverland, we can tell it’s all smoke and mirrors. There’s an organic, old-school feel to the effects. They have just enough of a rough edge so that we know we’re in a theater, but our suspension of disbelief is coxed by the story, song and dance. The crashing waves that break on the imaginary island shore are overlapped with rolling clouds that touch the brick skyline of London town. It creates a three-dimensional effect that cuts off the theater’s edges.
Circus of Your Mind is a quick-paced, four-part number that hangs on the anxieties that Kern’s Barrie faces as he choses a life outside of the proper stuffy English sort. The chorus of actors become the gears of a clock, jolting back and forth, roughing up the immortal dreams that Barrie has in a second childhood. The red lighting and fog make a psychological drama that remembers the kind of nightmare that extracts you from a good sleep.
Director Diane Paulus won awards for her revival of the ’60s love rock-in musical Hair, and you get a similar aesthetic with Finding Neverland. The ambitions that make up some of our dreams are all good and well, until real life or death comes knocking at the door. At that moment, we may have to make room, but not give up on what makes life worth the effort.
What about that persnickety fairy, who carries the magic dust that lets people fly? Tink is here, there and everywhere. Her pugnacious spirit is more than a lighting effect, it’s the feeling you’ll leave your seats with. As the songwriter wrote: Fill in all the dark spaces, with imaginary places.
Finding Neverland continues through Sunday, Jan. 8, at Keller Auditorium. Ticket and schedule information here.