Friday, January 06, 2017

Neverland Branch

On the last day of 2016, I headed downtown to the Buell Theater to see the touring production of Finding Neverland. The 2004 film (which I loved) was adapted into a Broadway musical, and has just begun making the rounds in different U.S. cities.

Even if you're unfamiliar with the movie, you can likely guess the subject matter from the title. Both film and musical center on playwright J.M. Barrie and his creation of Peter Pan. His primary inspiration comes from a widow raising four young boys, one in particular who is rushing to "grow up" after the loss of his father. Sentiment ensues.

Much of what transforms in the adaptation from screen to stage is to be expected. Film can present more subtle and nuanced acting; the musical is written to go large. Musicals are often upbeat and happy; this one does preserve the sadder elements of the movie, but also injects many lighter moments into its source material.

A lot of the fun definitely works in the musical's favor. It brazenly defies the adage not to work with children and animals. The young boys of Finding Neverland are front-and-center in several musical numbers, including one they have all to themselves. And an actual dog -- quite well-trained -- is used in a number of scenes. The musical also goes a step farther in personifying Barrie's imagination, turning Captain Hook into an actual character that taunts the author. (Though I wish they'd leaned further into this device; Hook is featured in just two scenes at the end of Act One and early in Act Two.)

But the real star of the show is the stagecraft. Though there's fine acting, and some good songs throughout, what really arrests the senses are literally the amazing set pieces of the show. Free-standing doors are turned into a carousel. The stage is transformed into a pirate ship right before your eyes. An elaborate dance number in a pub has the company rearranging, throwing, and standing on every piece of furniture imaginable. Then there are the crisp lighting effects, a memorable center stage wind vortex, and loads of projection. (Maybe even too much projection.) Visually, this production works overtime to give you your money's worth.

And perhaps this is a conscious effort to compensate for the heavier dramatic moments, which to me come up just a bit short. It may be that I loved the original movie so much. It may be that great child performances are easier to capture on film than live on stage. But for whatever reason, the production didn't move me as much as the 2004 movie.

Still, it's a great spectacle, fun and entertaining. If you have any experience in theater at any level -- from school to amateur to professional -- it's a show to see and be amazed at what was pulled off. I'd give Finding Neverland a B. It's worth catching if it tours in your city (or, if you're in Denver like me, if it should come back around at some future date).

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