Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Why'd They 'Tinker?' Though Enjoyable, Touring Version of 'Finding Neverland' Doesn't Hook Me As Before -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Finding Neverland
a recent musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru Dec. 4

Well-beyond affinity for Peter Pan in any other form--except perhaps peanut butter--I am a big Finding Neverland fan.

I loved the 2004 Marc Forster film, which semi-biographically explored how J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) became inspired to create Peter Pan after meeting London widower Sylvia Llewelen Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons.

Nominated for Best Picture and several other Oscars, I still consider Finding Neverland one of my 10 favorite movies of this century.

On my most recent trip to New York City, in late-March of last year, I opted to see the brand new musical version of Finding Neverland on Broadway--starring Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer and Laura Michelle Kelly--and loved it even more than I expected. 

Though I didn't write a review, I gave the show @@@@@ in my database of shows seen, and ranked it among the best musicals I saw in 2015. It wasn't perfect nor visionary, but it was decidedly delightful.

So even without big name stars, I was really looking forward to seeing the first national tour at Chicago's
Cadillac Palace on Tuesday night, and experienced overt joy just in listening to the Original Broadway Cast Recording on the Red Line downtown.

But while I took my seat in the Palace balcony anticipating urging musical theater lovers to catch Finding Neverland despite it having had a relatively-modest 17-month Broadway run with no Tony nominations, I am unfortunately unable to do so with much gusto.

This doesn't mean I would dissuade anyone from going; the current rendition garnered a standing ovation from many in the crowd and provided me with a fair amount of pleasure.

If you love musicals enough to venture downtown several times a year, or are going with a school, church or other group, I expect you will like Finding Neverland more than not. With some really talented kids in the cast, it was terrific to note so many kids in the audience. 

But less than before, I can't say I loved it.

Although I saw the Broadway version only 20 months ago, I can't explicitly convey all that has changed, but know that the show has been considerably reworked.

The first three songs that Broadway patrons saw and heard have been replaced--with far less buoyant ones--and for me this made the start of the show considerably colder and less ebullient.

There are still several delights in the score by Gary Barlow (of British boy band, Take That) and Eliot Kennedy--including "Believe," "All That Matters," "Stronger," "Play," "When Your Feet Don't Touch the Ground" and "Something About This Night"--but unless my hearing has eroded more than I realize, most didn't pack the punch they should have, either in terms of delivery or amplification. (To be fair, this was the tour's first night in Chicago and probably officially a preview performance, though part of my Broadway in Chicago subscription.)

And though this seems to be an Equity tour with considerable Broadway credits among the leads, only Christine Dwyer as Sylvia really stood out for me. Her delivery of "All That Matters" was excellent and she was quite engaging throughout.

But while Kevin Kern as J.M. Barrie and Tom Hewitt as his producer Charles Frohman (and also Captain Hook) are clearly professionals who can't be blamed for not being Matthew Morrison--of Glee fame, though I had known him more from the original Hairspray musical cast--or Kelsey Grammer, they never made me forget that they weren't.

Hewitt is a Broadway and touring vet who I've enjoyed previously, and there's nothing deficient about what he does here, but assuredly there must be some other sitcom stars of old who could bring a good bit of fun star power in a way that Grammer did.

For this show, in this rendition, could use quite a bit more oomph.

Certainly, if everyone who saw Finding Neverland on Broadway--or at least critics and award nominators--enjoyed it as much as I did, director Diane Paulus, book writer James Graham and Barlow & Kennedy wouldn't have felt compelled to "Tinker" as much.

Obviously, you can't please all of the people all of the time, and I still liked the show--as is--enough to give it a rating more positive than negative, and to expect many seeing it for the first time may be considerably more enchanted.

But while far from completely Panning a musical that retains numerous charms--and in Chicago, nice performances by the four "Davies boys" child actors--from the first song I wasn't nearly as Hooked as I had been previously, and by show's end, my effusive fondness for the Finding Neverland musical had largely Petered out.

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