Saturday, August 30, 2014

Review of "All I Love And Know" by Judith Frank

In "All I Love And Know," Judith Frank has crafted a very complex and engaging story of a family torn asunder by a terrorist bombing in a cafe in Jerusalem.  Among those killed in the blast were Joel Rosen and his wife, Ilana.  In their will, they asked that their two children, five year-old,Gal and baby Noam, be raised by Joel's twin brother, Daniel and Daniel's partner, Matthew.

In the course of 400 pages, Ms. Frank explores many dimensions of the complications that ensue and asks poignant questions along the way:

  • In how many ways can a family be fractured by an act of terrorism?
  • How do the secular Israelis and the religious Jews co-exist in Israel?
  • How deeply do the hurts and trauma of Holocaust victims reverberate to the second and third generation?
  • How does a gay couple go about getting permission from an Israeli court to bring Israel children to America?
  • How does Matthew, as the odd man out, fulfill his roles as partner to Daniel and co-parent to the children? 
  • Is Gal's meanness and aggressiveness something she will grow out of?
  • Has Noam been so traumatized that he will not learn to talk or walk normally?
  • Will Matthew and Daniel stay together despite all of the pressures that seek to force them apart?
  • How does Daniel deal with his ambivalent feelings towards those who perpetrated the bombing?  
  • How does he respond to the campaign of hatred aimed at him after his statements in the wake of his brother's death create a fire storm?
  • How can the needs and wants of all of the grandparents involved in this case be juggled?

The action of the novel toggles back and forth between Israel and the academic enclave of Northampton, Massachusetts.  The twists and turns in the events and in the complex relationships among family and friends keeps the reader on the edge of her seat.  Ms. Frank does an excellent job of addressing these political hot potato issues without coming across as polemical.  The book serves as rewarding reading that is both entertaining and deeply thought-provoking.



End of August Summer Camp - Review of "Pageant" Off-Broadway at the Davenport Theater

I have had an opportunity to see and to enjoy "Pageant" on two occasions over the past few months.  My first encounter with the musical occurred when the show ran in a limited engagement as part of Broadway Cares - Equity Fights AIDS.  I saw it again most recently in its current home at the Davenport Theater of West 45th Street.

The musical is a wonderfully campy send-up of the beauty pageant industry.  The conceit is that the audience is attending the finals of the Miss Glamouresse beauty pageant to determine who will reign as the Miss Glamouresse Beauty Spokesperson for the Glamouresse Cosmetic Company.  The semi-finalists are Miss Great Plains, Miss Industrial Northeast, Miss Texas, Miss Deep South, Miss West Coast and Miss Bible Belt.  The contestants compete in the usual evening gown, swimwear and talent competitions.  In addition, they must each demonstrate a Glamouresse product and spontaneously respond to callers who dial into the Glamouresse Beauty Hot-line.  The fact that each of the six contestants is played by a Broadway actor in drag makes for an evening of uproarious laughter and non-stop parody and scenery-chewing.

The show first ran Off-Broadway in 1991, conceived by Robert Longbottom, with Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell & Frank Kelly, with Music by Albert Evans.  The current production is directed by Matt Lenz with spectacular costumes designed by Stephen Yearick.

The evening's festivities are overseen by Host Frankie Cavalier, played magnificently by John Bolton.  With over-the-top wink-wink, nudge-nudge in his every look and leer, he channels Bert Parks and every other smarmy beauty pageant host who ever ogled the pulchritudinous contestants.  The audience is invited to participate, with judges chosen from among audience members who vote on who will wear the coveted rhinestone tiara.

The contestants convey personalities and accents consistent with the region they represent.  Individually, they are astonishing; collectively they are an absolute hoot!

Nick Cearley is wondrously frumpy as Miss Great Plains, a woman of the earth, whose favorite color is beige.  In terms of sheer beauty, Miss Great Plains is clearly out of her league, but in terms of acting chops, Mr. Cearley is in a league of his own.

Nic Corey is Miss Industrial Northeast and an additional role that I will not reveal lest I spoil a plot twist.  Mr. Corey plays this role of a sizzling beauty as a hot tamale of a Latina immigrant, whose "talent" is playing half of an accordion while almost dancing.

Alex Ringler is the statuesque Miss Texas, a Lone Star Blue Blood who comes from money and has been competing in pageants all of her life.  Miss Texas is so gorgeous that she could win a legitimate beauty contest - except for the guns that she totes: a six-shooter and biceps that Lou Ferrigno would die for.

Marty Thomas sachets on stage as Miss Deep South.  All magnolia charm and sorghum sweetness, Miss Deep South performs a ventriloquism act that in its own right is remarkable, but which also is a perfect parody of talent acts frequently seen in the heyday of the televised Miss America Pageant.  Mr. Thomas is the very soul of southern charm, except for the moment when she learns that she is not the winner.  A woman scorned . . . !

Curtis Wiley is Miss Bible Belt - all curvaceous fire and brimstone.  When she sings about the Lord as her investment counselor, she transports us all to church.  Can I get a witness?!

Seth Tucker is the latest incarnation of Miss West Coast - all New Age vacuity with an empty 1,000 yard stare.  Her cluelessness in every aspect of the show becomes a staple that the audience looks forward to.  Mr. Tucker conveys "ditsy" at its finest and most vapid.

Seth Tucker as Miss West Coast
Alex Ringler as Miss Texas
Nick Cearley as Miss Great Plains
John Bolton as Frankie Cavalier
Curtis Wiley as Miss Bible Belt
Marty Thomas as Miss Deep South
Nic Corey as Miss Industrial Northeast
"Pageant" at the Davenport Theater

I had with me as a guest a serious and classically trained actor.  He could not stop laughing throughout the evening, as was the case with most audience members.  Following the show, I was introduced the lyricist and author Bill Russell, whose "Side Show" is returning to Broadway soon.  He said to me: "When we wrote this show over twenty years ago, the beauty pageant world was fading.  But it seems to be experiencing a re-birth.  I am delighted that today's audiences are finding it relevant and entertaining."

A special note to my NYC friends who are involved with other plays and musicals.  "Pageant" has a Monday evening performance, so treat yourself to a "bus man's holiday," and use your night off to see some of New York's finest talent on the runway.  It may be the crowning event of your week!



Production information:
Davenport Theatre
354 W. 45th Street
New York, NY 10019
Extended through October 26, 2014
Buy your tickets today by clicking here.
Visit Pageant the Musical‘s official website.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Gloucester Stage Company Hits A Home Run with August Wilson's "Fences"

I have never been disappointed with a show that I have seen at Gloucester Stage Company.  Under the leadership of Artistic Director Eric C. Engle, GSC consistently produces plays and musicals that delight Cape Ann audiences and bring in theater patrons from beyond the North Shore.  The final production of the company's 35th Anniversary Season is no exception.  August Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for "Fences," part of his iconic Pittsburgh Cycle of ten plays - one for each decade of the 20th Century.  "Fences" is set in 1957 and tells the story of a former Negro League baseball slugger who has settled down to a humble life as a garbage collector in Pittsburgh.

Wilson's brilliant writing often follows a familiar arc.  Act I proceeds in a deliberate manner, setting the pieces upon the chess board and establishing the field of battle.  In Act II, the pace accelerates and often explodes into stunning violence.  The key chess pieces in this drama are Troy Maxson, his wife Rose, their son Cory, a step-son Lyons, a co-worker Bono, Troy's brother Gabriel and Raynell, Troy's love child.

The personal relationships are complex and twisted.  Troy and Bono drink and dream of a better life.  Lyons demands a loan from his father.  Cory is the rebellious teenager at odds with an embittered father who seems intent on thwarting his dreams to be a star athlete.  Rose is the strong and long-suffering wife trying to make a home under trying circumstances.  Gabriel is brain damaged from a war injury and lives in a world in which he believes he helps St. Peter to guard the Pearly Gates.  Raynell comes along to throw a spotlight on all that is wrong in the Maxson household and to serve as a catalyst for healing.

Mr. Engel's cast receives a huge boost from the very realistic set deigned by J. Michael Griggs.  It feels like 1957 Pittsburgh Hill District.  Costumes by Molly H. Trainer, Props by Joe Stallone and Lighting by Russ Swift all serve to enhance the feel that the action is taking places in the down-at-the-heels Hill neighborhood.  Wilson's play asks the metaphorical question: "Are you building a fence to keep people out, or to keep people in?"

Daver Morrison as Troy
Jacqui Parker as Rose
Jared Michael Brown as Cory
August Wilson's "Fences"
Gloucester Stage Company
Photo by Gary Ng

The cast members each embrace their roles and define their characters with energy, precision and grace.  They are:

Daver Morrison as Troy Maxson brings an intensity and controlled sense of rage and desperation that is fitting for a former athlete who never got his shot at the brass ring.  He is flawed as a husband and as a father, but does his best to balance a sense of duty with a desire for something more for himself.  Mr. Morrison project a sense of hard-earned dignity amid complex challenges and tragedy.

Jacqui Parker as Rose matches Mr. Morrison's intensity.  When Troy's infidelity threatens to blow the family apart, her strength and powerful sense of self hold the fragile framework of the household together.  There is a classic confrontation when Troy brings home the new-born love child, whose mother has died in childbirth.  After Rose wrestles deeply with how to respond to Troy's affront and challenge, she appears to soften and reaches out for the baby.  With maternal warmth, she agrees to raise the baby girl as her own, but then she turns on Troy with a look that would freeze the staunchest soul and proclaims: "But you are a man without a woman."  It is a piece of brilliant acting.

Gregory Marlow is also excellent as Bono, who is not only Troy's drinking buddy, but is also his Jimuny Cricket conscience, trying futilely to warn Troy to give up his girlfriend and be true to Rose.

Warren Jackson is very effective as Lyons, who projects a jaunty air of the 30-something son struggling to prove his independence while occasionally coming to beg for a loan.

Jermel Nakia as Gabriel has to do the hardest work, for the physicality needed to portray the damaged war veteran is prodigious.  The scene pictured below in setting the scene for Troy's funeral is powerful, largely because of the effort that Mr. Nakia puts into showing Troy's desperate sincerity.

Jacqui Parker as Rose
Warren Jackson as Lyons
Jermel Nakia as Gabriel
August Wilson's "Fences"
Gloucester Stage Company
Photo by Gary Ng
Jared Michael Brown is very believable as the rebellious son, Cory, whose dreams of being a star athlete like his father, are thwarted at every turn by the very man whom he had hoped to emulate.  The brokenness and rage that build up inside Cory are portrayed with great skill by Mr. Brown.

Bezawit Strong as young Raynell shines a healing light of innocence into the darkest corners of this conflicted family, and serves as the catalyst for the events that allow Cory to come to grips with needing to attend the funeral of the father from whom he had become estranged.

This is a powerful and moving production of one of the finest plays of the 20th century.

As the waning days of summer dwindle down to a precious few, consider a trip to Cape Ann. Enjoy the landscape, the beaches, the restaurants, the art galleries - and then end your day in scenic East Gloucester with a performance of this wonderful play.

This production runs through September 7.



Gloucester Stage Website

Saturday, August 23, 2014

"Birds Only Sing To Those Who Listen" by John David Autin - A Lovely Distillation and A Hymn To Life

Those who regularly read my reviews are aware that I rarely review books of poetry.  I am so glad that I made an exception in this case.  In this gold nugget of a volume, John David Autin has distilled 50 years of writing poetry into the nectar that fills 91 golden pages.

In the Preface to this volume, Mr. Autin talks of his struggle with Parkinson's Disease, and the fact that only one poem in this book deals explicitly with that aspect of his journey.  Yet as I read each poem, it was clear to me that the author's awareness of his own physical fragility has given him an enhanced awareness of the fragility of all of life, and it allows his language to shine brightly and to penetrate deeply.

The styles of his selected poems are quite diverse.  Many are familiar iambic tetrameter:

"Oh, do not think that I am dead,
For children owe no debt to death,
But say my swelling life instead
Outgrew the turbulence of breath"

(from "Hide-and-Seek")

Other poems reminded me of the free-flowing and breezy style of Dr. Seuss.  On the other end of the scale, there as poems that are like David's Psalms of Lament, particularly the deeply moving and impassioned "Psalm to the Ancient of Days."  It is clear that this poet draws from a deep well of Biblical knowledge and from his familiarity with Stygian mythology.  There are many allusions to sin and strife, to crossing the river, and grappling with "things that go bump in the night"!  In many ways, taken as a whole, this collection of poems is a Hymn to Life.

Let me share the lovely poem that lends its name to the book:

Birds Only Sing

"Birds only sing to those who listen,
Stars only shine for those who look.
For people who approach it with the proper disposition,
Life is not a problem, but an open book.

Attitude is everything.  Do yourself a favor:
Be enthusiastic in everything you do.
The secret of the most delicious dishes is the savor
That you bring to them, not what they bring to you.

Our sins against ourselves are mainly sins of omission,
The chances that we missed rather than the risks we took.
For birds only sing to those who listen,
And stars only shine for those who look."
(Page 11)

This book is a family project, for the lovely cover design is by the author's son, Michael.  This is a book that will be enjoyed by those who know and love poetry, but also by those who may be dipping their literary toes in that water for the first time.  I can say with conviction: "Come on in; the water's fine!"  Mr. Autin speaks effectively and poetically to both audiences.



Review of "BUCK: A Memoir" by M. K. Asante - A Remarkable and Compelling New Voice

"BUCK" is a remarkable memoir by a new voice.  Be aware that Mr. Asante speaks with a voice (w)rapped in a thick Philly Hip-Hop accent.  It took me a few pages to get into his rhythms and street nomenclature.  But it was well worth the effort, for he opens his soul in telling of his life on the means streets of North Philly and Germantown.

It is a jarring and moving story of survival against long odds.  Neighborhoods peopled with drug dealers and gang bangers.  An emotionally absent father who eventual left altogether, and who spent his time preaching Afrocentrism, but neglected his family.  A brother jailed for rape in Arizona.  A mother bouncing between home and psychiatric hospitals with bi-polar disorder.  Death of a best friend in a shooting.  Expulsion from a variety of schools.  A common tale - until a remarkable turn-around took place.

Asante describes the day that he arrived at an alternative school called Crefeld.  His teacher, Stacey, tells the students in the classroom to write.  At first, he sits paralyzed.  But eventually, he sees something new in that blank sheet of paper:.

"The blank page begs me to tell a story - dares me to tell one - one that's never been told before, and to tell it like it will never be told again.  The blank page lights up a room in my heart that I didn't know existed.  I'm standing outside of Crefeld when my purpose finds me.  

I hear Uncle Howard's voice in my head as I race through the hallway: 'Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.'

. . . I find Stacey in her classroom.  I declare it: 'I want to be a writer.'" (pages 224-5)

And what a writer he has become!  His style is fresh, raw, deep, descriptive, evocative and compelling.  I felt as if I had personally been invited to accompany Asante on a journey through the disparate chapters of his life as he wrestled with competing values, tribes, family dynamics and world views.  Born in Africa and raised in "Killadelphia," Asante sees himself and the world around him through a kaleidoscopic assortment of lenses.  His telling of his tale is both descriptive and prescriptive.  The moral of the story is right there: the right kind of teacher/mentor in the right kind of a nurturing environment pulled the fat out of the fire and saved a life that was destined for the slab or the slammer.

The author has a lot to say.  I look forward to him continuing to say it in his unique voice



Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mini-Review of "Some Remarks" by Neal Stephenson - A Collection of Essays By One Of Today's Most Brilliant Writers

I first became a fan of Neal Stephenson's writing when I discovered his brilliant fiction: "Cryptonomicon," "Reamde" and his Baroque Cycle novels.  I was delighted to learn that he had pulled together a collection of previous published essays and other non-fiction pieces in "Some Remarks."  

Mr. Stephenson is the rare writer who combines deep technical domain knowledge with a literary style that is both erudite and refreshing.  Understanding and enjoying his level of communication takes a bit of work, but it is well worth it - like savoring a delicious steak that requires some savory chewing. In this far-ranging collection, the author tackles The Internet, Metaphysics and the battle between Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, scientists as modern Jedi knights, a deconstruction of the movies Star Wars and 300 - and a whole lot more.

I always get to the last page of a Stephenson book, and then jump on Amazon to order something else by him to read.



Mini-Review of "Run" by Andrew Grant - A Cyber Thriller In The Style of Harlan Coben

Written in the style and spirit of Harlan Coben, Andrew Grant's thriller, "Run," hurtles at 100 MPH along a track of danger and intrigue in the arcane universe of cyber-terrorism.  The world of IT consultant, Marc Bowman, begins to spin out of control when he is fired by AmeriTel on the eve of the company competing for a lucrative bid on broadband licenses.  His wife remains as a senior employee, and their relationship begins to unravel as she tries every trick and female wile to convince Marc to return memory sticks that contain AmeriTel data and a mysterious virus.  Throw in Homeland Security agents, fake agents, White House and NSA connections and you have a fast-paced page turner.  There are enough red herrings in this tale to fill a small ocean.

My only criticism is that the fast reversals from Marc thinking he has solved his problems to discovering yet another twist or enemy or betrayal or bump in the road happen so fast that I was suffering from literary whiplash.



Monday, August 18, 2014

Review of "Paisley Mischief" by Lincoln MacVeigh - Having Fun While Biting The Hand That Fed Him

Author Lincoln MacVeagh calls himself a lapsed WASP.  The product of Groton and Harvard, he clearly takes delight at poking fun at the stuffy ethos of old money New York City in this delightful send-up of a novel entitled "Paisley Mischief."  The actions centers on the relationships among the members of the ultra-exclusive men's only Avenue Club on Park Avenue.  Drawn into the humidor-infused atmosphere are family members, hangers on, would-be members, staff and the literary and journalist worlds of  Manhattan.  MacVeagh is  relentless at cleverly prodding and poking the stuffiness of those who get to decide who are "our kind of people."  Class and ethnic snobbery are revealed as characters respond to a recently published roman a clef that hints at dark secrets hidden in the cedar closets of Avenue Club members.  The book is a delightful romp through the tony Upper East Side and the Hamptons.



Friday, August 15, 2014

Broadway-Bound "Finding Neverland" at the A.R.T. Sends Cambridge Audiences Soaring

Thayne Jasperson as Porthos
Alex Dreier as Michale Llewelyn Davies
Hayden Signoretti as Jack Llewelyn Davies
Jeremy Jordan as J. M. Barrie
Sawyer Nunes as George Llewelyn Davies
Aidan Gemme as Peter Llewelyn Davies
"Finding Neverland" at the A.R.T.
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva


I have just returned from a trip to Neverland.  As I sit to compose myself and to compose this review, I realize that as I write my thoughts about the play, I am compelled to write in two different voices. The first voice you will recognize as that of an allegedly mature man with some degree of objectivity and technical knowledge of the theater, able to analyze, describe, deconstruct, criticize and evaluate aspects of this work of art.  The second voice you will recognize as that of the Universal Lost Boy speaking in an unfiltered way from his pierced heart.  For the creators of  "Finding Neverland" have collectively launched an arrow that has found purchase in the bulls eye that is this Lost Boy's heart. The arrow has landed at a most vulnerable and primal spot -  that hidden place that longs for perpetual youth, the freedom to fly, and permission to follow wild contrails of imagination.  And when I speak with that voice, you may discern just the slightest hint of a Neverlandish brogue.

The artistic gold mine that is The American Repertory Theater in Cambridge has produced another wonderful nugget in the form of the current World Premiere production of "Finding Neverland."  Using the 2004 film of the same name both as a foundation stone and a launching pad, Diane Paulus and her amazing creative team and cast have taken the story of J.M. Barrie and his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family to new heights and depths.

The long and arduous journey of transforming this film into a musical began with the vision of Producer Harvey Weinstein.  Having successfully produced the film, directed by David Magee and starring Johnny Depp, Weinstein had a dream of telling the story in a new way through the medium of a musical play.  An earlier iteration of a musical version of the story took the stage in England in 2012, but was less than a complete success.  Weinstein decided to start again.  He had been inspired by the work of Diane Paulus when he come to Cambridge to see a performance of "Pippin" before it moved on to Broadway.  He asked Ms. Paulus to helm a new attempt at telling the story on stage with music and dance as the elements that would enhance the compelling narrative of the real people who inspired the timeless story of Peter Pan.

The creative team began to come together.  James Graham, best known for his political plays, was brought in to write the book.  UK pop composers/lyricists Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy were asked by Weinstein to write one song to show him if they could write for the musical stage.  18 songs later, audiences are already humming tunes that will live forever!  The "Neverland" theme is hauntingly beautiful.  Paulus reached out to Choreographer Mia Michaels, from "So You Think You Can Dance" to bring a fresh approach to dance to enrich the telling of this quirky tale.

The result of these collaborations is a show that has audiences leaping to their feet as they wipe from their eyes and cheeks tears of empathy, nostalgia, joy and wonder .  Beginning with the very solid keel of Allan Knee's play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan" and the 2004 Miramax film, Paulus as Wendy has built a ship that sails and soars, and she has led her tribe of Lost Boys on a creative voyage that has teased open some emotional buds that were hinted at in the film. She has allowed those buds to fully blossom in this telling of the story of Barrie and the Davies family.  Credit for this full flowering of the layers of emotional texture that have been added to the story must be shared among members of the creative team and the remarkable cast.  (Cast and creative team are all listed at the end of this review.  Anyone not singled out in the body of the review is only omitted because of lack of space and time for me to wax rhapsodic about each person's efforts in this play.)

Anchoring the cast are some remarkably talented actors.  
  • Jeremy Jordan is wondrous in the role of Scottish playwright J. M. Barrie.  As Mr. Jordan uses his finely honed acting skills to develop the character, the audience sees many nuanced facets of this complex man - creativity, self-doubt, fragility, imagination, recklessness, courage, fear, compassion.  And then using the luster of his singing voice, Mr. Jordan paints additional brush strokes that add further highlights and textures to this fascinating man/boy who created the timeless Peter Pan.  There were times when Jordan's voice rang with such purity - especially in the delicate upper register portions of several songs - that the performance space at the Loeb was momentarily transformed into a gigantic bell that reverberated with the harmonics of the note that he had just sung.  It is a performance that is a strong component of the arrow that pierces the hearts of audiences members.  And it is certainly a performance that is award worthy.
Jeremy Jordan as J.M. Barrie
Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies
Singing "What You Mean To Me"
 from "Finding Neverland"
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

  • Laura Michelle Kelly portrays the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies with the same artist's touch that earned her the Olivier Award for her depiction of Mary Poppins in London.  She brings to the surface many intertwined aspects of this single mother of four boys, struggling to allow her sons to grieve the loss of their father while getting on with life and with the work of childhood: play and imagination.  All the while, she tries to hold at bay the persistent intrusions of her mother, Mrs. du Maurier, a society maven with a need to control.  Ms. Kelly weaves together acting and singing skills that together create a fully formed character who grows stronger emotionally just as her body begins to succumb to an illness that is much more than a summer cold.  The moment in the play when she follows Peter Pan to Neverland left the audience members transfixed and slack-jawed.  It is a coup de theatre that has upon it the fingerprints of Diane Paulus and Air Sculptor Daniel Wurtzel.  It is in every sense a magical moment of storytelling of the highest order.

  • Carolee Carmello is the aforementioned Mrs. du Maurier.  She is frosty, imperious and haughty, in many aspects an inverse Mary Poppins, finding a way to inject a spoonful of castor oil into every attempt to force her daughter and grandchildren to act "normally" and responsibly.  In the very capable hands and voice of Ms. Carmello, the character of Mrs. du Maurier follows an arc of development that is an important part of this narrative.  Through the global warming influences of her daughter, grandsons, Mr. Barrie and the cast of "Peter Pan," this formidable iceberg begins to melt into human form.  Her reaction to the shenanigans in the "Neverland Reprise" number is both shocking and heart-warming.

  • Jeanna de Waal has taken on the very difficult task of humanizing the character of Mary Barrie, the playwright's wife who no longer takes delight in playing that part..  As written, the role of Mary is that of a woman desperate to create perfection and control - the very picture of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  The musical number "Rearranging the Furniture" establishes that aspect of her character, and also highlights the brilliance of Mia Michaels' choreography.  The grotesque physical contortions of the servants serve to both mirror and spotlight the twisted emotions that drive Mary to achieve perfection in every corner of her life.  The fact that Ms. de Waal is able to avoid turning Mary into a caricature is a tribute to her considerable skills as an actor.

  • Tony Award winner Michael McGrath tackles the dual roles of Producer Charles Frohman and Captain Hook.  The character of Frohman and his relationship with Barrie are established early in the play with the musical number "Better."  We see Frohman cajoling Barrie to write a new play that will be a hit while we also see Barrie berating himself for his failure to write a better play.  Mr. McGrath - a native of Worcester, Massachusetts! - has protean talent.  It took me halfway through his rousing "Hook" tour de force number before I realized that the same actor was playing both roles.  He is menacing as Barrie's hidden and dormant primal Id.
ichael McGrath as Captain Hook
Jeremy Jordan as J.M. Barrie
from "Finding Neverland"
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva
  • The Llewelyn Davies boys - played by four gifted young actors who make us believe that they are brothers who alternately annoy one another and deeply care for one another.  In the wake of their father's death, they are truly Lost Boys - especially Peter.  Played  evocatively and convincingly by Aidan Gemme, Peter is the counterpoint to Barrie.  Barrie is the man who will not grow up; Peter is the boy who is forced to grow up too soon.  The Yin-Yang nature of their relationship is implicit throughout the play, and becomes very explicit in the moving duet "When Your Feet Don't Touch the Ground." Young Master Gemme is confronted with the daunting challenge of matching Jeremy Jordan's vocal acrobatics, and he holds his own beautifully in singing about why he must keep himself grounded to deal with multiple layers of grief and loss. This song is the emotional center and pivot point of the show and is carried out with subtlety and grace by both Gemme and Jordan.  Oldest brother George, as played by Sawyer Nunes, responds to the challenge of becoming the "man of the house."  The young actor shines in his confrontation with his grandmother, asserting his right and that of his mother to handle their own affairs.  Hayden Signoretti plays Jack, who stands out in a scene with Mrs. Barrie in which she has tried to guess the names of the four boys.  His irreverent "Nice try!" breaks the tension and adds a needed laugh.  Alex Drier is lovable as the youngest brother Michael.  His turn as an usher in the backyard theater, and as Lady Ursula in Peter's play are delightful.  The brothers are given their own special musical moment to shine in "We're All Made of Stars."  The song is one of the many highlights of this special evening at the theater.
Alex Drier as Michael
Aidan Gemme as Peter
Sawyer Nuner as George
HAyden Signoreti as Jack
from "Finding Neverland"
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva
  • /Thayne Jasperson is Porthos, Barrie's faithful dog.  He is a favorite of the Llewelyn Davies boys - and of Cambridge audiences.  The athleticism of his tongue and of the rest of his canine corpus must be seen to be believed.  His performance is an unexpected highlight of the show.
  • Stuart Neal is Elliot, Mr. Frohman's Right Hand Man and Jack of All Trades.  He often serves as a calming influence amid the many storms that rage in the Frohman Empire.  Mr. Neal plays the role in an appealing and understated way that is just right.
  • The Servants in the Barrie household.  These dancers bring to life the innovative choreography that Mia Michaels has imagined.  Twirling, whirlng, jetteing, plieing, pirouetting and arabesquing until they are ready to drop, these gifted dancers are the secret sauce of this production.  I have already mentioned their contortions in the "Rearranging the Furniture" number.  They are equally impressive in the uproarious "Dinner Party" scene.  They are Melanie Moore, who also beautifully dances the role of Peter Pan, Mary Page Nance, Emma Pfaeffle, Jonathan Ritter, Julius Anthony Rubio, JC Schuster, Ron Todorowski and Jaime Lynn Verazin.
  • The Cast of Barrie's play "Peter Pan."  As a troupe, they are universally skeptical and resistant to the new fantasy play that Barrie has written.  Barrie and Frohman and Mrs. Llewelyn Davies bring them around to understand the meaning of "Play" in a rousing dance number set in a pub.  In this case, Barlow and Kennedy have written a number that sounds like Dropkick Murphys!  The recalcitrant players are Courtney Balan, Dana Costello, Rory Donovan, Gaelen Gilliland, Josh Lamon, and Paul Slade Smith.  Mr. Smith is hilarious as the self-important and overly histrionic cartoon of an actor, and Mr. Lamon shines as the actor portraying Michael and who is afraid of heights and refuses to go to bed. 
  • In an otherwise thankless role of Lord Cannan, Mary Barrie's lover, Tyley Ross makes his mark in a delicious little bit in which he demonstrates how Mary has traded up to a "mature man."
Mention must be made of the artful and often stunning scenic design by Scott Pask, the costume design by Suttirat Larlarb, the magical lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg, the lush sound design of Jonathan Deans and the subtle and judiciously used projections by Gilles Papain.

I have already praised the work of composers and lyricists Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy.  Each song serves a dramatic purpose, either establishing a character or a relationship or signalling a change in the advancement of the narrative.  These men have chosen to write songs from a rich variety of genres, and they work well together.  One musical number I have not yet mentioned that deserves its own accolade is the pulse-quickening finale to Act I entitled "Stronger."  Supported by much of the ensemble, Barrie climbs the gangplank aboard a pirate ship and proclaims who he has determined to be.  It is a visually stunning moment with soaring vocals to match.  It is a signature moment in the play and prepares the cast and audience to set sail in new directions in Act II.

The songs synch well with the book by James Graham which contains some very clever writing.  As she always does, Diane Paulus has added some of her trademark personal touches - having actors break the fourth wall and interact with the audience, using performance spaces outside the stage, integrating art forms that are new to the musical stage or re-imagining standard ones.  But she always brings a freshness and new "syntax" to the use of her familiar theatrical vocabulary.

"Finding Neverland" will play at the A.R.T. through September 28, before it heads to Broadway for a Spring 2015 opening.  I suggest strongly that you act soon to secure your tickets for they are in short supply and will go quickly once the buzz spreads.  Be aware that there are a few "obstructed view" seats, which are a wonderful bargain, for they are hardly obstructed at all.  There are also a handful of standing room tickets sold for most performances, beginning when the box office opens at 12:00 the day of the show.

If you have never been to the A.R.T. in Harvard Square, you may be wondering how you will find it  The voice in my head says: "Click on the link just below and it will take you to the A.R.T. website."  The voice in my heart says, with a wee Neverlandish brogue, "Just follow your imagination, or find the second star on the right and straight on 'til morning!"



Creative team
BookJames Graham
Music and LyricsGary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy
DirectorDiane Paulus
ChoreographyMia Michaels
Scenic DesignScott Pask
Costume DesignSuttirat Larlarb
Lighting DesignPhilip S. Rosenberg
Sound DesignJonathan Deans
Projection DesignerGilles Papain
Air SculptorDaniel Wurtzel
IllusionsPaul Kieve
Music SupervisorDavid Chase
OrchestrationsSimon Hale
Vocal DesignerAnnMarie Milazzo
Music Director/ConductorMary-Mitchell Campbell
Associate Music DirectorDavid Gardos
Music CopyingEmily Grishman Music Preparation
Associate DirectorNancy Harrington
CastingTelsey + Company
Production Stage ManagerChris Zaccardi
Miss JonesCourtney Balan
Mrs. du MaurierCarolee Carmello
Miss PotterDana Costello
Mary BarrieJeanna de Waal
Mr. Turpin/Sir EdwardRory Donovan
Michael Llewelyn DaviesAlex Dreier
Peter Llewelyn DaviesAidan Gemme
Miss BassettGaelen Gilliland
Porthos/DancerThayne Jasperson
J. M. BarrieJeremy Jordan
Sylvia Llewelyn DaviesLaura Michelle Kelly
Mr. CromerJosh Lamon
Charles FrohmanMichael McGrath
Servant/Peter Pan/DancerMelanie Moore
Servant/DancerMary Page Nance
ElliotStuart Neal
George Llewelyn DaviesSawyer Nunes
Servant/Wendy/DancerEmma Pfaeffle
Servant/DancerJonathan Ritter
Lord CannanTyley Ross
Dance Captain/SwingJulius Anthony RubioJaime Lynn Verazin
Servant/DancerJC Schuster
Jack Llewelyn DaviesHayden Signoretti
Mr. HenshawPaul Slade Smith
Servant/DancerRon Todorowski
Bari Sax/Clarinet/Bass ClarinetBob Bowlby
Trombone/Bass Trombone/EuphoniumPeter Cirelli
Violin/ViolaEmily Dahl
Flute/Piccolo/Alto Flute/Penny WhistlePeggy Friedland
Trumpet/Cornet/Flugelhorn/Piccolo Trumpet/Musical ContractorRick Hammett
Keyboard Sub/Rehearsal PianoTom Hojnacki
Acoustic/Electric BassGreg Holt
GuitarScotty Johnson
KeyboardTom Lamark
ViolinTara Novak
DrumsVinny Pagano
Percussion/DrumsNate Tucker
Synthesizer ProgrammingJeff Marder and Jim Jaywardena
Additional staff
Assistant Stage ManagerSharika NilesRaynelle Wright
Assistant DirectorMia Walker
Assistant ChoreographerJaime Lynn Verazin
DramaturgChristian Ronald
Hair and Wig DesingerCharles G. LaPointe
Associate Scenic DesignerOrit Jacoby Carroll
Assistant Scenic DesignersJeff Hinchee, Jerome Martin
Associate Costume DesignerMartin Schnellinger
Assistant Costume DesignerElizabeth Donelan
Associate Lighting DesignerJoel Shier
Moving Light ProgrammerAlex Fogel
Lighting Design FellowLaura Hildebrand
Associate Sound DesignerBrian Hsieh
Assistant Projection DesignerMarie Jumelin
Video Supervisor and ProgrammerMatthew Houstle
Dialect CoachDawn-Elin Fraser
Music AssistantsHaley Bennett, Ian Weinberger
Production AssistantSammi Cannold
Child WranglersTaylor Adamik, Stephanie Holmes
Makulumy Alexander-Hills, Stanford University ’16, Music
Garrett Allen, Harvard University ’16, Stage Management**
Michelle Betts, Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts*
Grace Brakeman, Dana Hall High School ’15, Artistic
Christopher Conway, Amherst College '18, Props
Christabel Fry, Western Australian Academy of Performing Art*
Matthew Good, Boston College ’14, Sound
Megan Jones, Harvard University ’16, Directing**
Ally Kiley, Harvard University ’15, Choreography**
Cei Lambert, Colorado State University MFA ’15, Costumes
Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence, Harvard University ’16, Music**
Max McGillivray, Harvard University ’16, Stage Management**
Sam Pottash, Harvard University ’16, Music**
Jacob Stepansky, Harvard University ’17, Stage Management**
Florence Tudgay, De Montfort University ’15, UK, Costumes
Corey Webster, Nomad Two Worlds Foundation, Sound
Mallory Weiss, Harvard University ’15, Dramaturgy**
Susanna Wolk, Harvard University ’14, Directing
**With support from the Harvard University Office of Career Services
*The Jackman Furness Foundation for the Performing Arts (JFFPA) and the Minderoo Foundation