Wednesday, November 02, 2016

FINDING NEVERLAND, a PETER PAN prequel, pleases at the Connor Palace

Peter Pan has had quite a life.  Since his conception by J. M. Barrie, the boy who refused to grow up has been associated with books, plays, films, costumes, art work, a television series, and music, as well as having his name given to a race horse, a food product, a bus line, an emergency health rescue service, a psychological syndrome, and a rock band.

Such publications and films as PETER PAN (J. M. Barrie), PETER PAN—3 Classic Tales (J. M. Barrie), PETER AND THE SECRET OF RUNDOON and PETER AND THE SWORD OF MERCY (Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (Rick Elice), PETER PAN AND WENDY (Alyn Cardarelli), PETER PAN IN SCARLET (Geraldine McCaughrean), HOOK (Steven Spielberg), RETURN TO NEVER LAND (Disney), and PAN (Joe Wright) have centered on some aspect of Peter’s existence. 

Peter, who symbolizes the nonchalant, fearless, cocky, forgetful and self-centered charmer, whose everlasting youth is due to his exposure to “star stuff,” a “magical substance which has fallen to earth,” is an international celebrity.

Peter’s latest Broadway life, FINDING NEVERLAND, crafted by James Graham (book) and Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy (music and lyrics) is now on stage at the Connor Palace as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series.

How did Peter come to be?  As far as history can reveal, he is named after a real boy, Peter Llewelyn Davies, the son of Sylvia Davies, a woman with whom Barrie had a platonic relationship, and Pan, a minor deity of Greek mythology, who represents nature and a free spirit.

As we learn in FINDING NEVERLAND, J. M. Barrie was a fairly successful playwright, whose plays, after a while were all basically the same.  He needed to find some inspiration to change his pattern. 

In 1903, Barrie and the widow Sylvia Davies, became acquaintances from their meetings in Kensington Park, London, where Barrie befriended Davies’ grieving but spirited boys, and eventually became their father figure.  From observing the boys and encouraging their imagination, especially that of Peter, the eldest of the four, Barrie, unleashed his own imagination.  Through Peter, he explored the power of creativity to open up new worlds.

Through his experiences with the Davies boys, PETER PAN is written, and staged to the chagrin of the stuffy and uptight company of actors in producer Charles Frohman’s theatre.  Produced to great accolades, as the old adage goes, “the rest is history!”

FINDING NEVERLAND had a healthy 17 month run on Broadway and is now on its US national tour. 

This is an impressive professional production.  The tour’s press and marketing director, Cleveland area local, Anita Dloniak, indicated in an interaction before the opening night curtain rose, that the massive show’s sets, costumes and props were shipped here in seven trailers.  It took close to 60 workers about 16 hours to load the 12.5 tons of scenery and lighting onto the stage. 

Included in the eye-popping staging, which has numerous electronic graphics, is the musical number, “Stronger (Part 2)” in which a pirate ship, complete with billowing sails, rope ladders, and towering masts, is constructed before our eyes and sails into a raging storm.

The production, according to director Diane Paulius, “is orchestrated within an inch of its life!”  This is both an advantage and disadvantage.  The show zips along with impressive precision, as does three-time Emmy Award winner Mia Michaels’ well-conceived choreography.  But, there is sometimes a lack of spontaneity and realism in the flow of lines, movements and character development.  Everything is actually too precise, making for an almost on-autopilot format in Act I.  Act II seemed a little more spontaneous.

Though FINDING NEVERLAND is a story for all ages, this staging may not be well suited for very young viewers.  If they’ve seen the animated PETER PAN or a stage production in which Peter, Wendy and Michael actually go aloft, they may be disappointed as the “flying” scenes are done by actors carrying the trio…no spectacular “I’m Flying” here.

The score has elements of contemporary and an “old fashioned musical.”  It is well-played by the orchestra.  There are several songs, however, in which the lyrics are drowned out by over-amplified instruments.

The well-conceived score, which includes “Neverland,” ”Imagination,” “We Own the Night,” the four part “Circus of the Mind,” “The World is Upside Down,” and “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” is well sung.

The cast is universally strong.  Cincinnati’s Kevin Kern, who appeared on the 6th game night of the World Series for the curtain call wearing a Cleveland Indian’s uniform, is spot on as J. M. Barrie.  The charming actor, who has appeared on Broadway as Fiyero in WICKED, was also seen in WEDDING SINGER and LES MISERABLES.  He has a pleasing voice, develops a clear characterization, and has a wonderful time interacting with the boys and the large, energetic floppy Sammy, a charming dog who portrays Porthos.

Tom Hewitt creates an appealing Charles Frohman, the first producer of PETER PAN, who is both a curmudgeon and a hyper-charged businessman.  Lovely Christine Dwyer presents a Sylvia Davies who is compassionate and appealing.  Her “All that Matters” was well sung and interpreted as was her duet, “Neverland” with Kern.

The Llewelyn Davies children vary in their casting from performance to performance.   Opening night, Eli Tokash was outstanding as Peter.  The young man showed great sensitivity and developed a clear concept of the importance of the role.  The other boys for that night, Jordan Cole, Finn Faulconer and Mitchell Wray were also excellent.

Special kudos to Paul Kieve for the spectacular stage illusions, Daniel Wurtzel for the air sculpture, Jon Driscoll for the projections, and William Berloni, an animal trainer, for the delightful performance by the crowd pleasing Sammy.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The touring production of FINDING NEVERLAND is a technically impressive and nicely conceived, if somewhat stilted production.  It clearly lays the prequel story of Peter Pan with a strong score and clear story.

Tickets for FINDING NEVERLAND, which runs through November 20, 2016 at the Connor Palace, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to