I would never be accused of being a big Peter Pan guy.
I have always appreciated the inventiveness of the story, crafted masterfully by J.M. Barrie in the early 1900’s, a whimsical tale of childhood and creativity.
Maybe it’s because I’ve seen versions and offshoots of it that were less than stellar. I was not a fan of the version that made its way through San Francisco back in 2010, with some great effects that did little to hold down a weak storyline. And I just wasn’t feeling “Peter and the Starcatcher” all that much. Certainly, it was inventive and visually stimulating. But I was not terribly compelled.
So there was no real vicious drive to see the show “Finding Neverland” as it made its way through San Francisco and the Orpheum Theatre, where it will be through Feb. 12th. And as someone who considers himself a fan of the work of Diane Paulus, especially her 2012 production of “Porgy and Bess” in New York, my favorite of the recent works of hers I have seen, there is always an assurance of wonderful colors and textures to any stage she graces with her compositions.
What is not particularly memorable about the show is its score. Don’t get me wrong; the music is good, plentiful and pithy in moments, but not fantastically memorable. There is one song, “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” that is executed beautifully by the dashing and debonair Kevin Kern , who plays Barrie, and young Peter, played with a forceful yet understated mature presence by Ben Krieger. And there are delightful choreographic moments that are set in motion with the number “We Own the Night,” a tune and a staging that goes deep into the imagination of Barrie.
His sense of play at the heart of his relationship with the four young Llewelyn Davies boys, and his sense of goodness that is as compelling as all get out to the lovely widow Sylvia, played with such warmth by Christine Dwyer, a woman whose eyes are on a constant journey, hints of sadness and hope that contrast warmly. Her cough, which is even louder because of what it may symbolize, is the elephant in the room.
This splash of domestic warmth seems to be more of what Barrie had in mind and where he seems to be most comfortable, especially since the woman he is married to, Mary Barrie (Crystal Kellogg) doesn’t exactly offer the same kind of stay home tendencies. There is also the controlling mother of Mary, Mrs. du Marier, who doesn’t approve of the amount of time that Barrie spends with Mary and her boys.
It really is what complicates the story. Barrie is an adult, a married man, but finds his real joy being around these kids, children who give him the greatest hit of his career. The story of Peter Pan is a story that changed the trajectory of his, and their lives for better, and unfortunately, for worse. Certainly Mrs. du Marier is not unreasonable to wonder why a man spends so much time with them, at the expense of time with his wife.
Where the story tends to work well is in how these two worlds, the concrete and the creative, are fused together, with a wonderful payoff at the end of the show. Both the literal and figurative symbolism of flight is applied sharply in important moments.
There are delightful performances both vocally and acting-wise. Doing double duty is Tom Hewitt, who plays both the theatre producer Charles Frohman, as well as the famous foppish Edwardian antihero Captain Hook. And the four boys have plenty of charm as they move throughout the stage with boundless energy and a strong sense of theatricality.
What makes “Finding Neverland” work well, despite its flaws, is that when you come right down to it, this is not a story about Peter Pan. The boy from Neverland and all his conflicts set a nice backdrop, but this is a story about the power of creativity. How theatre, in its simplest form, does not need a theatre full of bells and whistles. A story, an audience, and actors is all it takes. Whether it’s Broadway or a bedroom, theatre transcends people through space and time.
And it only took a little bit of a bubbly, bouncing light to realize this.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHNSF presents “Finding Neverland”
Music and Lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy
Book by James Graham
Directed by Diane Paulus
The Word: Music is solid yet not always memorable, but a show that importantly points out the power of creativity.
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Stars 4 out of 5
Through Feb. 12th
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St., San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $55 – $275
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com