‘Neverland’ is fun despite so-so score
By ANDY GRAY
CLEVELAND — “Finding Neverland” didn’t enjoy a simple flight on Broadway.
Based on the 2004 movie about writer J.M. Barrie and the real-life inspiration for his beloved “Peter Pan,” the musical version by James Graham, Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy earned very mixed reviews on Broadway and zero Tony nominations but still managed a 17-month New York run thanks to the popularity of its story and the star power of its cast (Matthew Morrison of “Glee” as Barrie; Kelsey Grammer of “Frazier” as Captain Hook and theatrical producer Charles Frohman).
There have been some significant changes for the national tour, which started a three-week run at the Connor Palace on Tuesday. Three first-act songs from the original cast recording are gone, replaced by “Welcome to London” and “My Imagination.”
The tease of Peter Pan that opens the show and the fun “Welcome to London” get the musical off to a rousing start. However, “My Imagination,” a statement-of-purpose song like the ones Disney princesses always sing, is less successful and symptomatic of much of the score.
“Finding Neverland” is an entertaining show without being a particularly good musical. Most of the songs are forgettable — not bad so much as bland. And director Diane Paulus’ staging tries to hide that with numbers that are loud and busy (first-act closer “Stronger” is a prime example). The choreography by Mia Michaels has the performers executing intricate steps around moving set pieces — a series of revolving doors on “Circus of Your Mind,” spinning tables on “Play.” The latter is one of the show’s best musical numbers, but the staging often feels designed to distract from the songs rather than complement them.
One of the most memorable musical moments also is one of the quietest: “We’re All Made of Stars,” a showcase for the four Davies boys (played by Eli Tokash, Finn Falconer, Mitchell Wray and Jordan Cole on opening night).
And yet, despite those flaws, there are moments in the second act that are magical, the touring cast is strong and one can have a fine time at the show without ever wanting to hear any of these songs again.
It’s easy to understand why “Finding Neverland” was adapted as a musical. Seeing Barrie (Kevin Kern) interact with the Davies children and their mother, Sylvia (Christine Dwyer), and then seeing how those moments became “Peter Pan” works particularly well on stage, and Graham’s book has added several one-liners tailored to theater audiences. Many of those are delivered by Tom Hewitt, who has the dual role of producer Charles Frohman and the Captain Hook of Barrie’s imagination. His comedic timing is impeccable, and he gives his vocal numbers a naturalness that makes them feel more like melodic dialogue rather than songs.
Kern’s work with the young actors also is one of the production’s strengths.
Plenty of laughter was heard opening night, but the levity didn’t keep some of the second-act developments from delivering an emotional wallop, one that was amplified by both the performances and Paulus’ staging.
If you go …
WHAT: Finding Neverland”
WHEN: Through Nov. 20. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Connor Palace, Playhouse Square, 1519 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $10 to $100.