Chicago Theatre Review
The Man Who Was Peter Pan
Finding Neverland – Broadway in Chicago
The imagination is infinite. It knows no boundaries. It can instantly transport a person to realms far beyond his everyday existence. The mind can probe facts and fantasies. It can conjure up magic and mysteries that confound the laws of science. A talent for flying, a faraway land where children never grow up, a realm filled with mythical creatures, fairies, mermaids and evil pirates all dwell within the limitless landscape of the imgination.
Such is the talent of the man who was Peter Pan. Sir James M. Barrie, the late Victorian Scottish author and playwright who crafted such works as “Quality Street,” “The Admirable Crichton” and “The Old Lady Shows Her Medals,” is best known for his stories and plays about children who refused to grow up. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” and his dramatic adaptation into novel form, Peter and Wendy, are recognized among the literary and theatrical world as the pinnacle of his prolific career.
Inspired by the success of the popular 2004 Johnny Depp film of the same name, along with Alan Knee’s play, “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” as well as several biographies devoted to the famous playwright, it was announced in 2011 that a musical stage adaptation was in the works. Following a 2012 premiere in Leicester, England, the original book and score were almost completely revised by playwright James Graham, and a brand new score was composed, that featured music by Gary Barlow and lyrics cowritten by Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus was brought in to direct and reshape the show, with Emmy-winning Mia Michaels choreographing the production. Finally, in the Spring of 2015, the new musical opened on Broadway. Television and Broadway star Matthew Morrison was cast as Sir James M. Barrie, with Kelsey Grammer as Charles Frohman/Captain Hook, Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and Carolee Carmello as the children’s grandmother, Mrs. du Maurier.
The musical is a celebration of the boundlessness of the human imagination. It also reveres the spark of youth, the inner kid that’s buried inside each adult. It also celebrates how children set no limits over their fantasies and flights of fancy. In addition, the show also deals with loss, especially the death of a loved one, and depicts it through the resiliency of the human spirit.
This biographic musical is the touching, often heartbreaking story of James Barrie, a man whose loveless, lackluster marriage provoked no joy nor inspiration for the talented writer. By chance, while walking his dog in Kensington Gardens one day, he meets Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four young boys. Following the recent death of her husband, Sylvia is trying to bring the joy of living back to her children. As he watches the kids creating scenarios to play out, Barrie envies the wild, carefree abandon that young George, Jack, Michael and, particularly Peter bring to their playtime.
The playwright soon sheds his inhibitions and begins cavorting daily with the children and their mother. Barrie even invites them to a sophisticated society dinner party at his home, much to the chagrin of his wife. Inspired by the children’s playing, Barrie writes a family fantasy for his American producer, Charles Frohman, to be produced at his London theatre. The play, with its young protagonist named for Sylvia’s son, Peter, is about a boy who never grows up. It’s set in Neverland in a fantasy world of fairies, mermaids, Indians, pirates, a giant ticking crocodile and a band of lost orphan boys, who accidentally fell out of their prams when the nanny wasn’t looking. Barrie’s play becomes a runaway hit, with its royalties being donated to a local orphanage. But the musical has a bittersweet ending. Sylvia contracts an unnamed illness, and dies, leaving her children in the joint care of their feisty grandmother, Mrs. du Maurier, and James Barrie, their loving, surrogate father.
The musical, which has been modified from the original Broadway production, is a colorful mixture of whimsy and heartbreak. However, as in New York, this respectable National Tour still feels overproduced. Less is so often more, and simplicity would’ve served this story much better, as in plays like “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Since the musical is an homage to the imagination, why not let the audience give it a try? Scott Pask’s scenic design is lovely and imaginative, but it’s often overpowered by Jon Driscoll’s melodramatic projections. Beautiful, elegant period costumes by Suttirat Ann Larlarb are nicely complemented by hair and makeup designs by Richard Mawbey. But the play’s emotional honesty is too often masked by a lot of extraneous twaddle. Despite Ms. Michaels’ undeniable choreographic creativity, her angular dance moves seem a little too frantic and athletic for this romantic story. Diane Paulus has directed the production employing only some of her usual strengths, which have made other musicals, such as “Pippin,” so special.
But the real strength of this show is Gary Barlow’s gorgeous, melancholy, Celtic-flavored score. His best songs include “Believe,” Sylvia’s angelic musical soliloquy, “All That Matters,” a haunting duet between Barrie and Sylvia, entitled “Neverland,” and the rousing nautical finale to Act I, “Stronger.” “Play” is a raucous barroom ditty, which infuses the song with lines from children’s nursery rhymes, and a heartbreaking, eleventh hour duet between Barrie and young Peter, “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” leaves audiences with a lump their throats.
This cast is excellent, especially the ensemble, and features many New York actors in key roles. Kevin Kern, who understudied and played this role on Broadway, creates an honest, sensitively-played James Barrie. His onstage relationships with every other character in this musical, particularly the children, is sincere and forthright. As Sylvia, Christine Dwyer, who resembles the film’s Kate Winslet, is magnificent and spirited. Both actors display an earnest vulnerability and superbly trained voices. Famed Broadway talent Tom Hewitt makes an irresistibly irascible Charles Frohman/Captain Hook. And the children, in particular, steal this production, led by a very talented young Ben Krieger, as Peter, and include Finn Faulconer, as George, Mitchell Wray, as Jack and dear little Jordan Cole, as Michael. Special kudos also go to Sammy, as Barrie’s lovable dog, Porthos.
There’s much to recommend about this National Tour. The musical relates a touching story that’s worth telling. It sheds new light on the life of a notable author and playwright. It shows how art often imitates life, while providing a backstory for the creation of Peter Pan. The cast is talented and likable, playing their roles with energy and honesty. And Gary Barlow’s gorgeous music, with its Celtic roots, is pleasantly addictive. Even though an argument could be made that a simpler production would better employ the audience’s own imagination, a quality celebrated in this play, theatergoers will certainly get their money’s worth. Audiences of all ages will leave the theatre knowing the man who was Peter Pan.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 22-December 4 by Broadway in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, at all Ticketmaster locations, by calling the Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com