Finding Neverland, American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, Massachusetts – review

This musical version of the J.M. Barrie story tugs on the heartstrings but never quite soars

One hundred and ten years after he first appeared onstage, at London’s Duke of York’s Theatre, Peter Pan is still having a lively time of it. Three feature films are in the works; US TV network NBC will broadcast a live performance of the beloved 1954 musical version later this year; and a new musical adaptation, Fly, had its premiere in Dallas last year.

Into their crowded midst now flits, at the American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the engaging, syrupy, occasionally inchoate Finding Neverland, a musical adaptation of the 2004 movie that starred Johnny Depp as Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, and Kate Winslet as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whose sons inspired Peter’s creation. An earlier version of this musical debuted two years ago in Leicester, England, received mixed reviews, and its cast and creative personnel have since changed.

The new team – director Diane Paulus, book-writer James Graham, and Eliot Kennedy and Gary Barlow (of pop band Take That) providing music and lyrics – has not damped the material’s sentimentality. The relationship between the childless Barrie and the Davies boys is still served with the spoonful of sugar that connects it to another early-20th-century English nursery tale that got Disneyfied: Mary Poppins. Finding Neverland also features aerial effects, which take place above Scott Pask’s visually inventive set, which is inspired in part by early Disney animation.

Act One carries us from Barrie as frustrated playwright to his meeting Sylvia and the boys to nursery scenes and the whizzy invention of Neverland. The second act darkens the mood, with Sylvia’s illness worsening. Not to worry: Barrie’s Peter Pan play will prove a hit, with its actors invading the nursery and happiness restored to the world. Children, who at my performance were considerably more entranced than were their adult companions, need only believe to find happiness.

Finding Neverland is cleverly geared to family audiences, which should ensure at least some success when it transfers to Broadway in March. Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul behind the project, insists, in typical hollywood fashion, that the Cambridge iteration is only the $3m version, and that for Broadway the razzmatazz will hit the $11m mark. Whatever the price tag, the story’s development still lacks much tension. For example, Barrie wins Sylvia and her boys over immediately. No chance of ambiguity in this show.

Paulus and her creators are more concerned with retaining the movie’s weepie aspects, and with providing maximum opportunities to display the circus-like bravado that distinguished Paulus’s hit productions of Hair and Pippin. The songs are mostly forgettable, except for “Neverland”, which Barrie (the dulcet-voiced Jeremy Jordan) sings to Sylvia (the charming Laura Michelle Kelly) while the boys sleep.

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