REVIEW: Finding Neverland

REVIEW: Finding Neverland

Moving, magical story of the man behind Peter Pan

NWA Democrat-Gazette

“Finding Neverland,” showing at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville through Saturday, was just what I needed. I expect most people have a similar situation to myself around this time of year: the buying gifts and the parties and the travel preparations to see family are all exciting and fill me with joy. But at the same time, the stress of buying gifts and the parties and the travel preparations and the finishing work and house cleaning and traffic and bills all in between is a bit of a nightmare. My mind is a constant jumble of what I’ve got to get done and for whom and where and when for about six weeks (well, OK, pretty much all the time). So when I can sit in a theater for two hours and be completely transported to a place where I actually forget about what I’ve got to accomplish when I exit those theater doors, the magic is not lost on me.

Based on the Academy Award-winning film of the same name starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, “Finding Neverland” tells the story of how playwright J.M. Barrie casts off the criticisms and expectations of those around him and writes a play for children — filled with pirates, mermaids, fairies and a boy who wouldn’t grow up. Sylvia Davies and her four sons inspire the author to overcome his writer’s block and write the adventurous tale that would change theater and, just like his main character, create a legacy that never ages. Davies’ children, especially her son Peter, renew Barrie’s imagination and eventually come to help even the actors and producer of his show remember what it was like to see the world through the eyes of a child.

We meet the Davies family early in the play during a day at the park, where the attraction between Barrie and the single-mother of three rambunctious boys and one “who doesn’t play anymore” is immediately evident, in spite of the former’s status-minded wife at home. As the nuggets that will eventually form the story of Peter Pan present themselves through Barrie’s battle with self-doubt and a series of whimsically catchy tunes, Barrie is steadily falling more in love with the whole family while Davies becomes more and more ill.

The duets between Billy Harrigan Tighe as Barrie and Lael Van Keuren as Davies — “Neverland” in the first act and “What You Mean to Me” in the second — are romantically modern and the shadow work behind the dancing actors in the latter makes the liaison all the more enchanting. Van Keuren gets to show off her soaring vocals with “All That Matters” as the set-wide projection behind her takes her flying among the stars. Unquestionably the most exciting number of the show, though, is the Act I finale. Just as Barrie is about to give up on his play, we are introduced to Captain James Hook as a manifestation of Barrie’s imagination. Goaded by the red-coated pirate, Barrie belts “Stronger” as a huge pirate ships takes shape on stage before our eyes, the number’s bass literally rattling the seats of the theater like a canon.

Veteran actor John Davidson — who plays the swashbuckler “almost demented at times,” as he told What’s Up! in a previous interview — also gives life to the play’s likeable producer Charles Frohman and provides a good dose of humor. Tighe’s Barrie is the right amounts sweet and endearing, and Van Keuren offers a sincere and lovely Davies trying to give it all to her children who are growing up too fast. Connor Jameson Casey as Peter in Tuesday’s opening night show breaks your heart as his innocence grapples with the painful realities of life — culminating in the moving “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” with Barrie. Colin Wheeler, too, as George Davies earns a few moments in the spotlight with a well-placed line signaling at his own pain, as well as charming vocals in the harmony-rich “We’re All Made of Stars” performed by the four brothers. The roles of the four children rotate between six actors so I would be interested to see how the varying performances affect the chemistry of the show.

I do feel the very end of the show rushes through the aftermath of the emotional climax to return to and end on a hopeful note, but the writing is no fault of the actors. But the terrific period costumes, engaging sets, delightful performances, generous humor and tender love story and magic of it all wrapped together make up for it when it gets me out of my own head for a couple hours.

Categories: Theater