We all seem to be continually and obsessively interested in the story of Peter Pan, that little boy who just won't grow up. And perhaps this explains the fascination this past election cycle with "Peter Pan from Hell," Donald Trump.
Since this review is being written two days before the election results are in, we'll assume, just for grins, that governmental Armageddon in the form of a looming Trump administration is not upon us, and we can move on to the show at hand. It's called Finding Neverland, now at Playhouse Square, and it is about that boy who flies — not the one who just flies off the handle.
This is the 2012 Peter Pan musical, based on the Johnny Depp film of the same name, that joined the ranks of all the other stage shows on the subject, including Peter and the Starcatcher (opening soon at Dobama Theater), Peter and Wendy, a raft of different scripts all titled Peter Pan (some with music, some without), and even a Peter Pan opera. Like I said, we're obsessed.
In this Broadway touring production, the focus is on the man who started the PP mania, J.M. Barrie, the author of the original work. And it is told with all the theatrical horsepower they can load onto a collection of 18-wheelers and haul around the country. There are cutaways to the Peter Pan story involving impressive sets, propulsive visual delights and pounding sound effects. But all the staging frou-frou can't cover up the fact that the story being told feels awfully saccharine and, yes, a tad juvenile. That's fine for any youngsters who occupy the seats, but it might be a bit less entrancing for those who drove them downtown.
As the tale is told, Barrie is an unhappily married playwright being urged to come up with a hit by his producer Charles Frohman. And Barrie has no ideas until he meets a gaggle of five young brothers while walking his pooch in a London park. These boys, who share the surname Llewelyn Davies, inspire Barrie —particularly a shy and intelligent lad, Peter, whom the fictional character is ultimately named after. Of course Barrie also meets the boys' widowed mom, Sylvia, and that relationship factors into the mix.
Trouble is, the book by James Graham and the music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy turn out to be mostly bland and forgettable. A ditty in the second act features these unintentionally revealing lines: "Every word and every sentence/Doesn't seem to make a difference/Nothing can explain just what you mean to me." No kidding. And there are some weak attempts at humor. In one, it's turning Wendy Darling's family surname into a lame "who's on first?"-style ripoff ("Who, Darling?" "Yes Darling!" and so on). In another, it's plying a tired riff on real "fairies" in the theater world.
The story of Barrie, Peter and the whole family could have been fascinating if the creators had acquired the cojones to peer into the rather tragic reality of those people. The real Peter — Peter Llewelyn Davies — really did grow up, and not so happily: He committed suicide at age 63 after being tormented for years by his "fame" as the inspiration for the Boy. Turns out, the original Peter really was a "lost boy," so stick that up your cock-a-doodle-doo, Peter Pan. Indeed, the book of this show glosses over most of the interesting, if not so palatable, parts of those lives and spoon-feeds us happy talk in songs titled "Believe" and "We're All Made of Stars."
That said, the production is dazzling and the performers, while not exactly memorable or charismatic, handle their tasks professionally. As Barrie, Kevin Kern is sort of a song-writing dork who stumbles on a very cool idea. Kern delivers his songs with polish, as does Christine Dwyer as Sylvia. Echoing the casting of the iconic Peter Pan musical, in which the performer who plays Mr. Darling doubles as Captain Hook, the actor playing Frohman also plays Hook. And in those roles, Tom Hewitt finds different ways to bluster and kvetch, often amusingly so.
The six young actors playing the boys — Jordan Cole, Finn Faulconer, Tyler Patrick Hennessy, Ben Krieger, Eli Tokash and Mitchell Wray — will often rotate through different roles in the Llewelyn Davies brood during the run. But they all do a fine job and often are called upon to carry much of the weight of the show in their scenes. And there are standouts in the supporting cast, including Dwelvan David who takes on multiple roles including a particularly egocentric actor called upon to play the babysitter Nana in a dog costume.
As for the show, it's not a dog itself, but it is so much less than it might have been, with a bit more boldness on the part of the creators.
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