Second star to the right, and on to Broadway
CAMBRIDGE — Move over, Cathy Rigby, Peter Pan is again flying on a Boston-area stage, even if “Finding Neverland” is really about the author of “Peter Pan,” J.M. Barrie, and his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family, a widow and her four sons.
The Pan character been explored on the stage, on TV, in an animated film, on the stage again, etc. The Barrie-Llewelyn Davies relationship was the subject of the 2004 film “Finding Neverland” and a failed 2012 musical version of the film.
Now Diane Paulus and the American Repertory Theatre have now charged into the fray full-force with their new production of “Finding Neverland,” and the good news is that is it is a heartfelt, family-friendly account of the relationship between Barrie and the family whose flights of fancy inspired “Peter Pan.”
What does it lack? Perhaps that one boffo “eleven o’clock’ song for Jeremy Jordan as Barrie — a signature song, if you will — that would sum up all of what he and the Llewelyn Davies children went through during the creative process for “Peter Pan,” and the personal pains they suffered.
The score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy is pleasant enough, but you probably won’t see Barbara Streisand rushing out to do a cover of any of the songs, with the possible exception of “Believe” and “Neverland.”
Jordan instills bonhomie in the character of Barrie, a wonderment at the world around him, but a wonderment seems to have deserted him when we open the piece, as he is smarting at his latest West End flop.
Michael McGrath is superb as Barrie’s understanding and sympathetic producer, Charles Frohman, who appears in manner and form to bear at least a passing resemblance to film mogul Harvey Weinstein, who is funding the show’s Cambridge run and the March expedition to Broadway.
McGrath also scores as Captain James Hook as Barrie finally accesses his “dark side” in creating the villain, unlocking the key to what will become “Peter Pan” during two strong first-act numbers: “Hook” and “Stronger.”
Laura Michelle Kelly is Sylvia, the widow struggling to raise four children while health woes soon engulf her. She and her brood — Michael (Alex Dreier), Jack (Hayden Signoretti), George (Sawyer Nunes) and Peter (Aidan Gemme) — willingly go where their imaginations take them, and serve as Barrie’s muses.
Carolee Carmello has a strong supporting turn as Mrs. Du Maurier, Sylvia’s mother who is suspicious of Barrie and his motives and eager to see her daughter find a proper husband.
Choreographer Mia Michaels’ first theatrical venture includes the use of long poles that being back memories of “Stomp!” and athletic dinner servers whose cartwheeling antics recall the “Be Our Guest” segment of “Beauty and the Beast,” but overall it is fresh, original, and at times dazzling.
The second act captures the humor and the chaos as Barrie springs “Peter Pan” on an unwary cast in two delightful numbers: “The World is Upside Down” and “Play,” with Josh Hamon and Paul Slade Smith forced to channel their inner child and canine nanny, respectively.
James Graham’s book emphasizes the point that “Peter Pan” was so daring and radical in both its ideas and its execution that it turned the theater world at the turn of the 20th Century upside down.
But no less daring and radical was Barrie’s relationship with the family and the young boys, more complicated than presented here and the subject of controversy through the years.
“Finding Neverland” is never less than gorgeous to look at with sets by Scott Pask , sumptuous costumes by Suttriat Larlarb and evocative and stylish lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg.
It’s still lacking that one song to put it over the top. But, having said that, a strong book, impressive staging, Michaels’ often dazzling choreography, and a top-notch cast should be enough to take “Finding Neverland” past the second star on the right and on to Broadway.
The American Repertory Theatre production of “Finding Neverland.” Book by James Graham; music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. Presented by special arrangement with Harvey Weinstein, based on the Miramax motion picture written by David Magee and the play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” by Allan Knee. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreography by Mia Michaels. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through Sept. 28. http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org.