Literally finding Neverland entails locating the second star to the right and continuing straight till morning. Fortunately, a significantly easier path to Finding Neverland entails only a brief 75-minute jaunt to the National Theatre in Washington, DC where the current NETworks national tour is camped out for a swashbuckling week of family friendly entertainment. Traveling between turn of the century, buttoned-down London and the land of mermaids and natives, pirates and fairies, and all the lost boys and occasional crocodile in-between takes no more time than a flash in author J.M. Barrie’s mind thanks to the magic created by visionary Broadway Director Diane Paulus (recreated for the tour by Mia Walker) and the continuous energy of Choreographer Mia Michaels inspired movement. With an uplifting book by James Graham (based on the 2004 movie written by David Magee and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee) and an impassioned score (music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, using styles from English music hall to Irish/Gaelic pop) Finding Neverland breezes through the theatre like Peter Pan himself through the nursery window of the Darling children with a similar lesson for a modern age.
The story commences with popular playwright J.M. Barrie (Jeff Sullivan), presently suffering from writer’s block and being pressured by American producer Charles Frohman (Conor McGiffin) to come up with a new play to salvage his failing theatre. On a chance trip to Kensington Park, he encounters four robust young brothers playing fantasy games such as Cowboys and Indians, or Pirates and Prey. They are the sons of young widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Ruby Gibbs), who caters to their playful side, and encourages the positive influences of the writer on her fatherless children. In the process, the boys inspire Barrie to conceive his landmark play, Peter Pan. To reveal any more of the plot would spoil all the numerous pleasant and clever sources of inspiration for Barrie’s Neverland and its inhabitants as we know them.
The New York Times, in a traditionally overly-harsh review, faulted original Broadway stars Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer as failing to invest in their performances. These ultimate critics would be hard pressed to claim the same of the stellar Jeff Sullivan. As Barrie, he sells Paulus and Michaels’ vision with athleticism, agility, and charisma, alternating between tortured artist and joyous man-child. He carries the show with a natural buoyancy while simultaneously grounding it as its emotional center. It is clear that his Pan may not totally be the inspiration he gives credit to, but rather a creation of his own exuberant newfound soul. Gibbs is a strong costar, with a gorgeous voice who exudes warmth and understanding, excelling most in her quiet scenes and numbers with Sullivan. McGiffin provides relief from the potentially saccharine as the comic curmudgeon of the piece, as well as adding a layer of welcome dark comedy later in the show as an ominous alter ego.
The liability of any show that prominently features children, let alone four of them (and a dog!), is the presence of the occasional theatre kid whose precociousness stops the show with a dead halt. But Walker has gathered six incredibly talented youngsters who shuffle to fill the four brothers’ roles at various performances throughout the week. The four who opened the show (Paul Schoeller as George, Josiah Smothers as Jack, Brody Bett as Michael, and particularly Seth Erdley as the more somber and pensive Peter) are not only talented with strong voices, they are utterly engaging. They provide a great energy to the show and are more than game for embracing Michaels’ not-for-the-faint choreography. Their chemistry is so strong they could very well be brothers, and their relationships with Barrie and their mother are completely natural and easy. Playing the boy inside the man as Sullivan does is a challenging enough trick, but playing the man inside the boy is significantly more problematic. However, young Erdley is an outstanding young actor who grasps the mature soul of his character and goes toe to toe with his enthusiastic counterpart Sullivan.
The production team boasts some pretty heavy hitters. Nabbing luminary Director Diane Paulus (Pippin, Waitress) and stellar Choreographer Mia Michaels (So You Think You Can Dance) is a pretty impressive pair to top the credits. Paulus is a genius as a director, specializing in creating virtual and literal magic on stage, and her efforts are greatly appreciated here under Mia Walker’s respectfully detailed supervision. Michaels is one of the strongest and most inspired choreographers on SYTYCD, and her style is present throughout the show, not only in dance numbers, instilling it with a continuous and inherent beauty. Many of her group numbers that would be stand, move, and sing for most choreographers are full of fluid and constant motion, as are even a few of the “stationary” scenes. Even the occasional ballad between Sullivan and Gibbs reads almost like one of her prominent contemporary ballets. Both Paulus and Michaels have profoundly left their mark on this production, and Walker has flawlessly preserved their vision.
Technically the show appears small in concept but opens up wide with magic and imagination from a very versatile production team. Scenic Designer Scott Pask appears to choose minimalism until he teams up with Projection Designer Jon Driscoll for visually amazing results as Driscoll’s projections cover, mold, and envelope Pask’s various drops and flats for stunning combinations of movement through time, space, and even emotion. Lighting Designer Kenneth Posner provides all the mood, and Costume Designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb recreates her meticulous period costumes from Broadway for both the show and the show within the show. In a space plagued at times by sound issues, Sound Designer Shannon Slaton delivers superior audio. The remaining members of the team, the mysteriously titled Illusionist Paul Kieve, Flying Effects by Hudson Scenic Studio, and Air Sculptor Daniel Wurtzel combine to provide all the magic of Barrie’s inner world with breathtaking results, culminating in a pixie dust inspired finale of pure visual magic (assuming that’s what “air sculpting” entails).
Barrie, in an iconic moment of his play, inquires if the audience believes in fairies. If so, he implores them to clap their hands. This opening night audience needed no such prodding—and, believe, the fairies do show up throughout, some rather quickly. It’s rare to find a family friendly musical with such depth and soul as Paulus gives this one. Don’t let this underrated gem of the season slip by. Finding Neverland plays but one short week before it sails off to the next destination.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission