Review: Finding Neverland
By Perry Tannenbaum
So wait a second: John Davidson – the Hollywood Squares host and the incurably wholesome crooner on too many variety shows to completely avoid – is far better now as an actor than he ever was as a TV personality or a singer??!? Capable of savagery and raw power? Watching the Charlotte premiere of Finding Neverland at Belk Theater earlier this week turned my long-held convictions upside-down.
Davidson takes on the role of Peter Pan playwright James M. Barrie’s implacable theatre producer, Charles Frohman, becoming the inspiration for Barrie’s most famous villain, Captain James Hook. While Billy Harrington Tighe stars as Barrie alongside Christine Dwyer as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of four adorable boys who help liberate the playwright’s inner child, it’s Davidson who dominates. Since the current Charlotte engagement is the first of a 24-city tour through April 2018, theatergoers across the US from Rhode Island to Arizona should be on the lookout for Davidson’s bravura.
Maybe “dominates” isn’t the right word for what Davidson accomplishes, for he rescues a show that flounders rather pitifully through nearly the entire first act, despite the sometimes strained efforts of Tighe and Dwyer, the hyperactivity of the purportedly inspirational kiddies, and assorted meaningless outbursts of spectacle that end up pointing up what they’re intended to hide – a total absence of imagination, magic, and enchantment. Adding to this strain to entertain, amid a moribund book by James Graham paired with tepid music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, sound designer Jonathan Deans seems to have potted volume levels some 15-20 decibels above those I experienced at the 2015 Broadway production.
Deans’ ministrations, however, prove to support a key strategic aim of director Diane Paulus as we sail into intermission. The final two songs prior to the break, “Hook” and “Stronger,” almost literally explode, undergirded by thunderous volleys of percussion that seem to shake the walls of the theater. Here is where Frohman, after throwing a portentous shadow of a hook onto the upstage wall, transforms into Captain Hook and Scott Pask’s mix of Victorian and Kensington Garden settings suddenly turns dark, swarming with pirates.
It’s a thrusting nautical moment that echoes the thrill of Douglas Sills singing “Into the Fire,” when the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney, exhorting his marauding band of revolutionaries, showed his true heroic self for the first time in The Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s Tighe latching onto Davidson’s lurid coattails to become stronger. But Hook doesn’t materialize out of thin air – or that comical silhouette. He explains that he is actually a part of Barrie that the playwright has kept repressed.
The Davies siblings have liberated Barrie’s inner child, but it’s Hook who unleashes the beast. After intermission, he even prods the unhappily married Barrie to give the widowed Mrs. Davies a kiss.
So it’s almost accurate to say that Davidson co-stars with Tighe as Barrie, for there are times when he’s clearly sharing the role. Yet even when Davidson is aboard with all of Frohman’s orneriness, all is not well. Confronted with Barrie’s script for Peter Pan, the first rehearsal scene that Frohman presides over is fairly lame; and when the conceited, over-refined acting troupe adjourns to a pub, where Barrie and Sylvia encourage them to “Play” more like children, the regression humor falls even flatter. Graham would like us to believe that legitimate actors are familiar with King Lear and not A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and that Barrie’s previous masterwork, The Admirable Crichton, was a clichéd drawing room comedy.
Graham’s book improves slightly when the four boys prepare to entertain their mom and Barrie with Peter Davies’ new play. But if the boys’ “We’re All Made of Stars” nearly rises to that festive backyard occasion, we must endure the lackluster “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” when Barrie and Peter (Connor Jameson Casey on the night I attended) have their most dramatic father-son exchange. With more touching emotional power, the musical ascends from there as Peter Pan premieres and triumphs while Elizabeth expires.
Somehow it doesn’t matter that Dwyer hasn’t given us any indication of Elizabeth’s frailty until moments before she exits to her deathbed. Graham finally mixes some magic into the personal transformations of Barrie and Peter, Daniel Wurtzel sprinkles in some enchanting air sculpture from Fairyland, and a little glint of that fairy dust begins to gleam in Frohman’s child-hating soul.
Maybe when Kelsey Grammer growled as Hook and softened as Frohman in the original Broadway cast, the ending had more emotional power than this. I seriously doubt it. I can only say that the leaden ending I experienced when an understudy took over the role at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre did not begin to compare with the climax that brought a nearly full house to its feet at Belk Theater on opening night. Barlow and Kennedy never seem to even search for Neverland, let alone succeed in finding it, but Davidson certainly does with his astonishing Phoenix-like rebirth.