Can you, can I, can anyone, trip back to an age of pre-cynicism and innocent wonder? The mega-storms of the world rage on – ISIS, Russia invading Ukraine, the Gaza strip conflict, Ferguson, Ebola in Africa, global climate change out of control everywhere … How do you get away from that? You do want to do that now and again, right? Take a respite from grim reality and try to find the Peter Pan within, as the Waterboys’ Mike Scott once wrote about in a gorgeous song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6FeNn-827k
That’s what “Finding Neverland” does. The new musical is the latest Diane Paulus-directed/pre-Broadway work at the American Repertory Theatre’s Loeb Drama Center, up through Sept. 28. Put aside the Johnny Depp movie, with its darker undertones. This effort is not without its darker shades – there’s plenty of angst and strife, dying relationships and death itself – but it is an overwhelming enchanting and vivid musical.
It’s about Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie (1860-1937), played by the excellent Jeremy Jordan, and his attempt to defeat writer’s block and pen something both artistically and commercially successful. To be done at the fevered behest of his exasperated producer Charles Frohman, Michael McGrath channeling his best inner Nathan Lane. (McGrath later appears as Peter Pan’s nefarious foil Capt. Hook.) Early on, Frohman says to Barrie, about theatrical pursuits, “Musical comedy is the lowest form out there.” (Joke noted, smile brought. I’ve had this thought, too, but musical comedy is of course where we’re headed and this one’s a rollicking ride. I suppose they couldn’t have made the joke had they thought it not.)
Barrie’s attempt to write a hit-from-the-heart would result in, of course, “Peter Pan,” which we all know and love. But “Finding Neverland” is about the journey he takes to get there – and that’s all about relocating his inner child. And it’s the children – the real four boys who are sons of the beautiful widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly), whom Barrie meets by happenstance in the park – and the actors that play those sons in the abbreviated “Peter Pan” production, where the joy comes alive.
Now, childhood is not all a fairytale. Charles Dickens taught us that much. And, heck, these kids have gone through their travails – the death of their father before the play starts and an impending illness to their mother. And yet – yet – they play-act, they fantasize, they use their imaginations to bond with each other – and the attentive Barrie – and create something beautiful and adventurous out of the ordinary. And we, implicitly, are urged to recapture that sense of wonder that many of us have long lost or buried as we watch this musical (or more so, even, when we’re walking out and digesting it in the hours or days afterwards.) I found myself stirred quite deeply – by James Graham’s witty dialog, by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy’s score, by Mia Michaels’ exacting and breath-taking choreography. It is a dazzling mesh, on practically every level.
This is a theme not at all foreign to Paulus, who revels in these uplifting dance/music dramadies and really encourages actors and audiences alike to embrace the act of play. (“Finding Neverland” is based on David Magee’s movie and the Allan Knee’s play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan.”)
It’s been noted by some that the A.R.T. as is (under Paulus) is not quite the cutting-edge/out-there A.R.T. it was under founder Robert Brustein. Or that Paulus’ productions have an eye cast toward ending up on Broadway, which in some respects the Cambridge shows are out of town tryouts. Fair enough on those counts, but also, they’re kind of irrelevant when it all works, as it does here. It was a privilege to see “The Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess” and “The Glass Menagerie” before they hit Broadway and it felt like a privilege to see “Finding Neverland,” too. Call it mass-appeal middle-of-the-road entertainment if you wish, but deny its uplift – earned uplift – and you’re missing the point and headed toward curmudgeonville. You want a rock ‘n’ roll correlative? Think Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”
The subplots among the adults have diversionary interest, especially the humorous egotism of the actors waiting for Barrie to finish his damn play, so eager to work (and earn money!). The tongue-wagging Barrie dog (played by an uncredited actor) is marvelous, licking, panting, cavorting, peeing and doing various other doggie things. There are so many moments here: A spectacular bit of illusionary stagecraft that accompanies one of Sylvia’s exits, of which I’ll say no more. Believe me, you want to be astonished – not tipped off to the particulars by me. (Illusions courtesy of Paul Kieve, reminding me of Teller and “The Tempest,” recently at the Loeb.) There’s a rousing climax at the end of Act 1 when Barrie, Hook and the cast sing “Stronger.”
When the boys (Aiden Gemme as Peter, Alex Dreier as Michael, Hayden Signoretti as Jack and Sawyer Nunes as George) sing “We’re All Made of Stars” in Act 2, well, it verges on tear-jerking, the innocence burning so brightly. Even what’s sort of a tossoff sketch/song early on, “Rearranging the Furniture,” sung by Barrie’s straight-laced and demanding wife Mary (Jeanna de Wall), is also a brilliantly syncopated bit of precise hustle and bustle conveying (with mirth) a prissy sense of OCD and exasperated servitude. There is the late-in-the-play bond that comes when Sylvia’s mother-in-law, the prim Madame du Maurier (Carolee Carmello) and Barrie come to terms, after a long struggle of opposing values. When these two forces, both adamant about their core beliefs, come to realize they’ve got something in common that’s much more important than anything else – those four Llewelyn Davies’ kids – that’s when you begin to think all can be right with this world. Not the world at large, maybe, but this world. Neverland and all that led to it.
Tickets: $95-$25. Tuesday through Sunday. Check website below for times.
64 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-547-8300 www.americanrepertorytheater.org