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

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