I was excited to see Finding Neverland on opening night, but I was also a little skeptical. After all, the film of the same name is a film that moved me endlessly, depicting themes of life, death and imagination with unique and beautiful candor. How would this film translate into musical theater?
If you haven’t seen the movie or musical before, Finding Neverland tells the story of famed playwright J.M. Barrie, played expertly by Kevin Kern, as he discovers his artistry. His old plays weren’t working; he needed something new, something fresh. Through his adventures, and meeting the love of his life, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, along with her brood of children, Barrie is able to regain his childlike spirit and create the work we all know as Peter Pan, a play that eschewed traditional theatrical traditions and tried something new, much to the skepticism of critics.
The show opens with a flicker of light; Tinkerbell’s light, that is. Against a pitch black backdrop, the light zooms in circles, flitting around the stage in a way that could only be explained as magic. I knew the audience was in for something unconventional. No, this wasn’t going to be just like the movie–we would watch as the magic unfolded on stage, right before our eyes.
We next meet J.M. Barrie, seemingly a lost soul after his latest play is a total flop. He’s in the park one day, strolling with his dog, when he runs into a widow named Sylvia (played by Christine Dwyer, ironically bearing a striking resemblance to Kate Winslet, who played the film role) and her children playing. In an instant, he becomes a part of their world, chatting with Sylvia like they’ve known each other much longer than a few moments. The set design is absolutely exquisite: Here, we’re transported to London, and we’re walking the lush green park with them.
Barrie soon becomes the companion of Jack, George, Michael and Peter. It’s in these moments where he finds his true self, unlike the man he becomes in front of his producer. As he spends more time with the Llewelyn Davies family, pieces of him begin to return, and suddenly his imagination sparks once more, filling his soul with the story he was meant to write.
His imagination particularly comes to life in the dinner party scene, when Barrie and his wife host a group of affluent individuals, including the Sylvia’s mother. The ornate set design meets childlike enthusiasm when the scene freezes and we see what would happen if Barrie’s imagination ran the show. Suddenly, food is tossed, children are running, a man’s toupee is snatched right off his head, all the while the adult guests sit frozen, proper, and acting exactly as they think they should be. We snap back to reality, where the guest’s toupee really has been taken. Much to the disgrace of Barrie’s wife, the dinner ends abruptly before the fun-spirited waiter is able to bring out the brandy.
The divide between Barrie and his wife shows what happens when we remain children despite our age, and what happens when we allow ourselves to fall into the trap of losing our imagination and youthful wonder. His wife is all practicality, while Barrie’s head is up in the clouds. His wife is thinking of only herself and of riches, while Barrie is idealistic and wants to make a difference with his ideas. The dinner scene is pivotal, as it truly showcases Barrie’s character and his heart.
Soon, the pieces begin to come together as Neverland becomes more than just a fictional place. Barrie’s real life begins to mirror the story he creates. We meet the villain, Captain Hook, as his producer’s shadow is illuminated on the wall. We watch Barrie’s dog play with the children, and grin when we learn that the dog in fact will be named Nana, a nontraditional caregiver. We are introduced to Hook’s sidekick, Smee, portrayed by a nervous stage assistant. We gain insight into the origin of the Lost Boys, and we later learn that the play was based on Sylvia herself.
Barrie’s personal life takes a turn when his wife leaves him, thwarted by his inattention and interactions with Sylvia. It was Sylvia that he truly loved all along. During “Neverland,” Barrie and Llewelyn Davies share a gorgeous duet as they finally come together for a long-awaited kiss. Neverland becomes a fictional place they dream of, yet it’s also realized in real life, where joys are endless and love is all that exists.
Act II of Finding Neverland opens with a cast reading of J.M. Barrie’s newest play, Peter Pan. Disgruntled actors become confused and angry when the roles don’t make sense. A nanny that’s a dog? Boys that are just lost and not encountering an existential crisis? A pirate with a hook for a hand? We later see the actors embracing the roles, as the play becomes an instant hit on opening night, a play where Peter is the guest of honor.
In drama, triumph must always be met with tragedy. Sylvia grows sick, and it is inevitable this isn’t something that could be cured. (Initially, I was a bit nervous to see how this would be handled onstage based upon the number of kids in the audience–but we’ll get to that.) Right after opening night ends, the entire cast rushes to the Llewelyn Davies residence for what Barrie calls the truly important performance. Truthfully, he wants to show her the story he inadvertently wrote for her before she dies. There are many tears in the audience as we watch the tale of Peter Pan unfold, showing the highlight reel of Barrie’s most magical story.
Next up is a moment I almost don’t want to share, as I feel that everyone should experience this sight for themselves. So, if you’re going to see this musical, please stop now. Thank you – you have been warned.
As the play nears its end, Barrie and company reprise the gorgeous ballad, “Neverland.” As it rises to a flourish, the window opens, illuminating the dark blue sky behind, and suddenly Sylvia is moving backwards. All of a sudden, a storm of glittery gold sparkles envelops her, halting me in my tracks as one of the most stunningly beautiful moments of theater I have ever seen. Combining this beautiful, symbolic moment of Sylvia traveling to heaven, otherwise known as Neverland, with the heart-wrenching song, it was hard to find a dry eye in the theater.
Finding Neverland exceeded my expectations in that it teaches us all lasting lessons along with the beautiful story it presents. We are reminded that it’s a privilege to grow old, yet we don’t have to lose our inner child to do so. There are stories in every moment, every scene, if we just choose to look for them. And it’s the magic of life we should cherish most of all, through surrounding ourselves with our loved ones and having no regrets as we pursue our dreams authentically and create our lives. Thank you, J.M. Barrie, for reminding us of these necessary truths, truths I surely won’t ever forget.
Finding Neverland will be shown at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through December 4, with tickets available in a range of tiers.