Finding Neverland is a lovely show, packed with heart and exhilarating numbers about the power of imagination. It also has almost nothing to do with historical reality. Ironically, the less you know about J.M. Barrie and the real story of how he wrote Peter Pan, the more likely you are to enjoy this musical.
Set in 1903, Finding Neverland tells a fictionalized version of playwright J.M. Barrie (played by Will Ray) as he meets the family that inspired his most famous story, Peter Pan. In the play, Barrie meets a young mother and her four boys in the park and rediscovers the joy of play and imagination with them. This causes him to scrap the play he has just finished in favor of revisiting some of his childhood fantasies, leading to the creation of Neverland.
This musical is persistently sweet and optimistic, even when it shouldn’t be, focusing on the fun and imagination that we tend to associate with the story today. I’m not going to describe real events of Barrie’s life here, it’s not helpful to understand the show and frankly it’s pretty depressing. Finding Neverland is better if you can put aside reality and enjoy the fun.
There is quite a lot of fun to be had too. I saw several children in the audience entranced by the show and skip through the theater at intermission. The songs are fun, the story is interesting and the cast is fantastic. Will Ray carries the show as J.M. Barrie without losing his sense of enjoyment and whimsy. A rotating cast of six fabulous young actors portray the group of boys that is so central to the show, often with impressive gravity beyond their years.
But it’s the supporting cast that really stands out in this show. Dwelvan David as Mr. Henshaw and Thomas Miller as Elliot both play minor characters in the show that are more memorable than a lot of the songs. They are comic relief characters that become fully-realized people through the masterful performances of these two actors. Dee Tomasetta as Peter Pan and Mary Kate Hartung as Wendy perform impressive acrobatics throughout the show and add atmosphere by tying the main characters back into the familiar story.
The problems with the musical, however, are large and outside of the cast’s control. Projections behind the characters are used liberally in ways that detract rather than add to the performances happening on stage. The pervasive use of clock imagery goes beyond heavy-handed and doesn’t actually add anything to the audience’s understanding of the show. By far the most successful effects in the show were the practical ones. Flying lights for Tinkerbell, spotlights creating shadows behind the characters and clever use of fans do far more to immerse the audience in the story than the 3-D projections of waves and London. These production elements might be alright in another show, but it’s all just too much for this one.
But by far the biggest problem is the fact that if you think about the show historically, the entire thing starts to fall apart.
Even ignoring the events the show is supposedly based upon, Finding Neverland doesn’t seem particularly interested in grounding the story in the period.Unlike other musicals set in roughly the same time such as A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Hello Dolly and even Newsies, this show doesn’t root the story in the past. The women aren’t wearing corsets, the orchestration is blatantly modern and current social norms (such as how people behave at dinner parties) are slapped into the Edwardian Era without a second thought.
The problem of the women’s undergarments in particular is a small thing that really bugs me. I can understand why the costumer might want to modify a corset to give the actresses more range of movement. However the modern bras the women wear in this performance create a modern silhouette that would make any Edwardian man immediately abandon his wife. Anyone who has ever worn a corset knows that it immediately affects not only the way you look, but also the way you walk and bend. It’s a small aspect that shows the audience that this production doesn’t really care about historical appropriateness.
Finding Neverland is an imaginative show with a stellar cast. Despite being over produced and utterly ungrounded in the period it claims to portray, the show is fun and even moving at times. Children seem to love the show, and quite frankly, that’s what ultimately matters. It’s a great night out and a reminder to the young and young at heart that imagination can make it so that you never really have to grow up.
Finding Neverland is playing at San Jose’s Center for Performing Arts (255 S. Almaden Boulevard) April 17-22, 2018. The show runs about two and a half hours with one intermission. Tickets range $48-$128.
Photos courtesy of Jeremy Daniel