For the past few years, whatever multi-award-winning director/American Repertory Theater (ART) Artistic Director Diane Paulus helmed, she struck pure gold. Her productions ended up on Broadway’s White Way, swooping up Tonys.
Her Broadway production of “Hair” won a Tony in 2009, and her American Repertory Theater’s “Porgy and Bess,” (2012) “Pippin,” (2013) and “All the Way,” headed straight to Broadway, with Paulus & Co. on the red carpet and in the winner’s circle again.
Now, her sensational latest theatrical coup, “Finding Neverland,” is also Broadway bound sometime after its stint in Cambridge ends Sept. 28, and promises to win more accolades and awards next year.
This musical play, based on David Magee’s Miramax Motion Picture of the same name, and also Allan Knee’s play, “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” traces the biographic relationship between the Llewelyn Davies family and James Matthew Barrie, author of “Peter Pan”. It’s presented by special arrangement with Harvey Weinstein.
Besides Paulus’ fabulous feel for fantastic stage effects (thanks to Gilles Papain, Daniel Wurtzel, Paul Kieve, Phil Rosenberg, and Jonathan Deans), she places her magic thumb on the pulse of America’s heartbeat, hiring the best of the best to enchant, delight, amaze, and mesmerize theatergoers.
Popular British playwright-TV writer James Graham captures “Peter Pan” originator Barrie’s inside child, while retelling the story about his writer’s block, his friendship and inspirational association with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davis and her four young sons after their initial chance meeting at Kensington Gardens; Barrie’s failing marriage to actress Mary Barrie; and his smashing stage success with “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up”.
In “Finding Neverland,” Paulus capitalizes on the magic of Barrie’s original 1904 fantasy play, which broke theatrical barriers with its nonsensical plot of lost boys, a tiny fairy, pirates, and a little boy named Peter, who refuses to grow up and lives in the magic land of Neverland, with the lost boys. Barrie shocked and wowed audiences and critics by having actors “fly” through the air on stage, thrilling youngsters and the young-at-heart. And he even evoked a hearty response with his plea for theatergoers to clap loudly if they believe in fairies, and save tiny, twinkly, firefly-like fairy, Tinker Bell’s life.
Like Barrie, Paulus makes us realize if we believe anything is possible, then it will be. Imagination, creativity, fantasy, those wonderful aspects of childhood, restore the child inside us.
Barrie and “Finding Neverland” playwright James Graham don’t dismiss sadness and loss in life, though. They accept it and understand it, while encouraging others. U.K. pop sensation Gary Barlow’s music, along with internationally renowned songwriter-record producer Eliot Kennedy, have created a memorable, hummable musical score. Contemporary choreographer Mia Michaels (longtime judge of TV show, “So You Think You Can Dance,” combines childlike glee with acrobatic, fluid movement; Scott Pask’s lush sets capture the elegance of the Victorian Era, as does Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s handsome period costumes, to which she adds her own whimsical flair.
Music Director Mary-Mitchell Campbell and her superb group of musicians add the right tone, joy, sadness, and triumph to large ensemble numbers, such as “Better,” “The Circus of Your Mind,””Play,” or the “Neverland Reprise” and finale song, “All That Matters,” and also to softer, sentimental solos like “Sylvia’s Lullaby,” “Barrie’s “Neverland,” or his “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,”.
This stellar cast makes believers of us all. Veteran actor Jeremy Jordan evokes laughter and lightness with his his joie de vivre and childlike abandonment with the boys, while co-star Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewlyn-Davies, the boys’ mother and Barrie’s muse, finely balances her challenging role as the boys’ upbeat mother, who suddenly realizes she’s dying of cancer. Jordan and Kelly have great chemistry together, especially when they’re romping with the boys, believing in each other, and releasing their inner child.
Although Aidan Gemme is only 11 years old, he is a veteran stage actor, who touchingly runs the emotional gamut as Peter Llewlyn-Davies, Sylvia’s son most seriously affected by his father’s death. Gemme’s child co-stars, 11-year-old Hayden Signoretti as Jack, 11-year-old Alex Dreier as Michael, and 12-year-old Sawyer Nunes as George nicely complement each other, their on-stage camarderie reflecting their off-stage friendship and enjoyment of playing video games together.
Significantly rounding out the cast are Michael McGrath as Barrie’s American producer, Charles Frohman and pretend pirate character, James Hook; Jeanna De Waal portraying Barrie’s wife, Mary; and Carolee Carmello as Sylvia’s proper gentlelady mother, Mrs. du Maurier.
“Finding Neverland” is a lyrical, multi-generational sensation. a marvelous inspiration for making our dreams come true - if we believe.
BOX INFO: World premiere of two-act musical, book written by British playwright-TV writer James Graham, music, lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, appearing through Sept, 28, at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. Performances:Tuesday-Friday, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, 2,7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Check also for talkbacks. Recommended for families with children 8 years old-up. For tickets and more information, visit americanrepertorytheater.org or call 617-547-8300.