There is a scene early on in Finding Neverland where playwright J.M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) is talking about the play he’s working on with theater producer Charles Frohman (Matthew Quinn). Charles tells him that the play can’t be too short or too long. It also can’t be too funny or too serious. It needs to make people think but not think too hard. Finding that perfect balance isn’t always easy in a play, but Finding Neverland makes it look as effortless as lifting a feather.
The musical — based on the 2004 movie of the same name — opens in early 20th century London, where audiences see a group of actors portraying the roles from the stage adaptation of Peter Pan. Then the show’s playwright, J.M., comes onto the stage, telling us that this is the story of how he created that story. Suddenly, it’s a year prior, right before he meets the family that would become his inspiration for the boy who wouldn’t grow up, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Lael Van Keuren) and her four boys: Peter, George, Jack and Michael.
During last night’s performance, the boys were played by Connor Jameson Casey (Peter), Colin Wheeler (George), Wyatt Cirbus (Jack), and Tyler Patrick Hennessy (Michael). The four boys — along with Turner Birthisel and Bergman Freedman — alternate roles throughout the run and they really bring it, going toe-for-toe with all the adult actors, never missing a beat.
There are plenty of plays with one or two child actors, but few have one that carries as much of the show’s emotional weight as Peter does. Ann Arbor native Casey is at times heartbreaking to watch — get your tissues ready during one of the show’s most poignant numbers, the duet “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” — but also switches easily into Peter’s lighter moments, when he gets to be the kid he actually is.
The boys aren't the only strong actors in the cast, everyone from the incredible Tighe to the entire ensemble (with special recognition to Dwelvan David and Matt Wolpe) are top-notch. Keuren is probably the strongest vocalist of the group, with a range that she gets to really show off during the ballad “All That Matters.” There’s also Quinn, who played dual roles throughout the musical last night, Charles and Captain James Hook. As Charles, he gets to have a few fun moments, but Captain James Hook is the character you’ll remember. Hook is a little dark and extra flamboyant, he gets to say things most of wish we had the courage to. Charles/Captain James Hook are normally played by John Davidson but after seeing Quinn last night, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the two roles.
Speaking of Captain Hook, his introduction closes out Act I in one of the show’s strongest group numbers (and there are a lot of those in this show). Up until this point, most of the show’s numbers had felt relatively light, but this one gets to be a bit darker in everything from Kenneth Posner’s lighting design to Mia Michaels choreography.
While the show’s quieter, more low-key, songs are lovely to listen to, Finding Neverland is at its best during the show’s giant — and often grand — group numbers. Michaels has created choreography that is reminiscent to big, Broadway shows like Hello Dolly! and Ragtime. They are the kind of numbers that remind you why people have always loved Broadway — to see lots of really talented people singing and dancing their hearts out.
The show’s creative team is full of aces as well. Suttirat Anne Larlarb's costumes are breathtaking, from the men’s well-tailored three-piece suits to the women’s gowns and jewels. Scenic Designer Scott Pask created backdrops that oftentimes look like watercolor paintings, and when combined with the work of projection designer Jon Driscoll, it makes you feel like you’re flying through London’s night sky.
Then there’s the show’s book — created by James Graham — and music and lyrics, written by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. The trio have created something really special in Finding Neverland. Simply put, it’s a fun show that anyone can enjoy, even during its more somber moments, of which there are a few. But it’s also a show that can remind each of us that letting out our inner child isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it can be a magical one.