I just saw Finding Neverland at A.R.T. (I haven't been to A.R.T. for a while and I wanted to see something there and since I ended up catching The Glass Menagerie and All the Way on Broadway, I figured it wouldn't hurt to be part of the "in" crowd for once and watch Finding Neverland before it transfers. Because the show has had some viciously negative reviews, I also wanted to judge for myself.)
Let me say this as a Shakespeare fan who does not care about Peter Pan one bit: "Finding Neverland" is pure genius. It is not syrupy, contrary to what some have written. It is not a children-oriented show that adults will get bored at. The show I was at - an evening performance - was attended primarily by adults and many loved it, once they got used to the zany flavor of the show. Because, ladies and gentlemen, this show is zany to the extreme. The program notes explain that: "Peter Pan was incredibly radical when first staged at the Duke of York's in 1904... Our director Diane Paulus was keen from the start to reflect that spirit of creative freedom and radicalism here in 2014. Despite its period setting, we juxtapose within it the deliberately modern British pop music of Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, and the liberatingly contemporary choreography of Mia Michaels. This is what the world looks and sounds like to Barrie."
Now, the beginning (the first two songs, but especially the first one, which is also the opening sequence) is extraordinarily bad. Why that song was not canned before the show opened is beyond me. At the very least, there should be a sequence before it where we can connect with J.M. Barrie feeling like a failure, and the dance accompanying the song itself should be a little more than people with clocks on their head doing tiny movements like robots staying on the same spot. You want to warn people the show is not the cutesy Disney show some might expect. Once I watched this, I was ready to agree with the critics who have written niceties about the show such as "dead in the water" and "if you're going to review the baby in the cradle, strangle it." But if you make it past the first half of the first half (or the first quarter of the show, if you know your math), the musical becomes really good.
I've got to say I COULD NOT STAND THE FAKE DOG who is played by an actor who spends his time frolicking on stage with his tongue out. I found it hugely distracting and that actor made me cringe every time he stepped foot on stage. It'd be MUCH, MUCH BETTER if he could have some sort of choreography for his role so that he wouldn't have to bound around all the time in his dog costume. For the love of God, if anyone involved with the musical reads this, have some mercy and change the part of the dog. Make some modern dance for the dog. Please please pretty please don't let the "role" the way it is now. The awfulness of it can't be put in words.
Small comments: (1) it is weird that the first song is about time going by but later the large clock on the back of the set always shows midnight. (2) At times the sound was WAY too loud for the auditorium, especially in the scene with Captain Hook with all the smoke, and later when the members of the acting troupe bang their mugs against the tables of the tavern. My ears felt weird for about one hour after the show, and I'm not someone with any hearing problems.
My favorite songs were "All that matters" and "Play". I particularly liked that Peter Pan and Wendy fly into the air the old-fashioned way: with dancers lifting them up, instead of having some fancy cables carrying them in the air. I also appreciated that the four Davies boys got a whole song of their own to sing, and the Peter boy also got a song with J.M. Barrie, played by a very talented (acting-wise and vocal-wise) Jeremy Jordan. The boys are rather young and I feel not every director would have dared letting them sing all alone on stage. But they rise to the challenge with impressive brio. The scene with the pirate ship that ends the first half was stunning. The re-creation of the play on the night of the premiere in the Davies house was perfect too. The second half felt basically flawless (except that it carried over some of the flaws of the first half, read: THAT AWFUL DOG). Some one-liners were really funny. The scenes with Peter Pan were magical, especially the last scene with Sylvia.
Diane Paulus managed to create a very engaging show sure to appeal not only to children but also to many teenagers and adults. It has just the right dose of subversive in it to make it a delight to watch when you are a grown-up, and the right amount of magic to make it a delight to watch when you are not. I'd tell you to go and see it while you can, but I heard the seats with normal (not limited) visibility are now sold out for the whole run. Catch it when it transfers to Broadway in the spring, then.