‘Neverland’ soars when Hook springs into action
Pirates improve any adventure tale, especially when the dastardly Capt. Hook commands the crew of buccaneers. Unfortunately it takes the creative team of “Finding Neverland” a whole act to remember this. The Broadway show, which runs through Aug. 20 at the Boston Opera House, is full of fun, but it does take a while to find its footing.
“Finding Neverland” sprang from a successful, strange pair: Hollywood super producer Harvey Weinstein and Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus. While the two occupy wildly different worlds, they have similar goals: develop works packed with art and inventiveness, but not so much art and inventiveness they can’t turn a profit. This tug of war between creativity and tried-and-true formula is on full display in this production.
For those unfamiliar with the source material — the show is based on the 2004 film of the same name produced by Weinstein and starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet — “Finding Neverland” follows the story of British playwright J.M. Barrie and his relationship with the family that inspired Peter Pan. It’s a tale of fictional magic illuminating a too-real world — discord and death creep around the shadows of “Neverland.”
The first act needs a bit more fairy dust. The team loads it down with lots of exposition and doesn’t include enough tension. While the big ensemble pieces feature impressive choreography that is both tight and whimsical, the ballads can drag like typical Top 40 (not surprising considering Brit boy band star Gary Barlow of Take That and pop songwriter Eliot Kennedy penned the songs).
The team picks up the action in the second act (read: more Capt. Hook) thanks to a brisker pace and some real heartache. Fantasy and reality crash together in a beautifully done climax where mortality mixes with the world of Peter Pan, Wendy and Tinker Bell.
Thankfully, “Finding Neverland” features frequent detours by a great ensemble. The supporting players, especially when they inhabit the roles of the actors in Barrie’s theater company, add bawdy, corny, ridiculous humor to every scene they take part in (Dwelvan David and Matt Wolpe are particularly impressive). But none of the supporting players or the leads have the immense charisma of John Davidson as theater producer Charles Frohman and Capt. James Hook.
A Hollywood veteran of film and television (he used to guest host “The Tonight Show”), Davidson dominates every scene he appears in. As Frohman, he delivers the best jokes with impeccable timing. When he transforms into Capt.Hook, he creates the perfect blend of genuine menace and cartoonish dastardly villainy — somehow he finds a halfway point between Snidely Whiplash and Jack Nicholson’s Joker.
Weinstein and Paulus hedge closer to the commercial with “Neverland,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a failure — far from it. Don’t expect a reinvention of theater like “Hamilton,” “Stomp” or even Paulus’ great Tony award-winning revival of “Pippin.” Go into it hoping for a cute story, strong supporting players and a few thrilling big numbers, and you’ll enjoy the magic.
“Finding Neverland,” through Aug. 20 at the Boston Opera House. Tickets: $40-$200; boston.broadway.com.