Thursday, February 16, 2017

Finding Peter Pan on Broadway (and beyond)

In my line of work, nearly any stage or movie production related to Peter Pan counts as research, including the stage version of Finding Neverland--although I had to wait a while for the national tour of the Broadway show to come through my town

It's a lovely work of fantasy--unfortunately, not only in its forays into the imagination of J. M. Barrie, but in its contorted biographical details. However, it's hard not to love a show that includes in its cast a real dog (Sammy, in the performance I saw).

Sammy (right) as Porthos,with understudy Bailey and animal
trainer Bill Berloni (KSP Images)

Those digressions from fact were particularly jarring in the first act. Luckily, the first act also contains most of the sets and ensemble numbers I enjoyed most. Theater critics disagree on the value of using projections rather than full sets, but I found them transporting and an agreeable contrast with the reality of the stage. Most of the magic for me in Finding Neverland was in those fantasy sequences, particularly "Believe" with its red balloons and a mermaid, and Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies' beautiful final scene.

Photo by Carol Rosegg

I didn't think Finding Neverland had quite as much heart as Peter and the Starcatcher, which surprised me. The fact that its songs are written by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy of boy band Take That is probably part of that. But the ensemble numbers were great fun, as were all the scenes featuring the full company, and the entire cast--many of whom have Peter Pan-related experience--was uniformly excellent.

Tony Award-nominated Tom Hewitt played Captain Hook in the Cathy Rigby Peter Pan (as well as the not dissimilar roles of Frank N'Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, the title role in Dracula: The Musical, and Scar in The Lion King). Kevin Kern understudied Glee's Matthew Morrison on Broadway, and brought a similar style to the role. Christine Dwyer, who also played Wicked's Elphaba on Broadway, is only the second actress to portray Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in the musical. Perhaps most impressive of all, the young actors who play the Llewelyn Davies boys are able to trade parts.

Of particular interest to this blog, of course, is the character of Captain Hook. Here he is more than a villain--he is the goad to Barrie's success, with a musical number and backup performers of his own.

Clearly the shirt designers were expecting me.

Most audience members won't be catapulted out of the story the way I was by its digressions from fact. I won't poke too many holes in the narrative here--the details are easy to look up--but I will say that J. M. Barrie was never anything but commercially successful as a playwright, and New York producer George Frohman didn't come into the picture until "Peter Pan" was already a London hit. (Frohman is a colorful character in the musical, though, and a useful foil.) I also felt for J. M. Barrie's wife Mary, given that Jim was at least as much at fault for the breakup of their actual marriage as she was. Most galling, though, is the deletion of the youngest Llewelyn-Davies boy, Nicholas (which I attempt to redress in The Stowaway, in my own small way).

Of course, the musical is based on the 2004 "semibiographical" film starring Johnny Depp, which was no more accurate, and as such can't make too many changes and still resemble its source material. Finding Neverland began life as a 1998 play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, by Allan  Knee, who adapted it for the 2004 film starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. The musical version was proposed by La Jolla Playhouse in 2011, but had its world premiere in Leicester in 2012. Its official world premiere took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2014, and the Broadway production began in 2015.Changes--some substantial--were made to the production all along its trajectory--perhaps appropriate, as J. M. Barrie made innumerable tweaks to his own production of Peter Pan.

A fun note: Sandy Duncan, who played Peter Pan on Broadway in 1979, played the role of Mrs. DuMaurier in the Broadway production of Finding Neverland for a month. 

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