By Morgan Politzer
As the flickering light of the world’s most beloved fairy flies out over the audience, theatergoers at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. are transported back to the place where children never grow up and the world is upside down in director Mia Walker’s version of “Finding Neverland.”
Based on Marc Foster’s 2004 film, the musical tells the true story of playwright and original author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie (Jeff Sullivan), and his source of inspiration for the story of a boy that refused to grow up.
The opening number “Welcome to London” is a perfectly average song during a perfectly average day in London in 1903. As parkgoers stroll through Kensington Gardens with their fluttering fans and long dusters and smart hats, there is nothing overly spectacular about the life they lead. But it is this intentional averageness that makes Peter (Seth Erdley), George (Paul Schoeller), Jack (Josiah Smothers) and Michael (Brody Bett) Llewelyn Davies so fabulously refreshing as they terrorize the park with daring sword fights, buried treasure and tales of swashbuckling pirates.
Erdley, Schoeller, Smothers and Bett are perfectly darling and easily fill your daily dose of cuteness with their wooden swords and tri-cornered pirate hats as they run through the park with their mother, the beautiful and quick-witted widow Sylvia (Ruby Gibbs). With her sharp and endearingly honest tongue, she turns Barrie’s world upside down. Sullivan’s energy and smile light up the room as he enters the realm of make-believe with the Llewelyn Davies family, effectively pulling him out of his writing funk.
As Barrie spends more time with the Llewelyn Davies family, he slowly fills the gap left behind by their father’s death. Familiar pieces of the classic tale slowly begin to come together, as elements of Barrie’s imagination come to life, swirling around him as the games of pretend and make-believe become a new kind of reality on the written page.
As the children remind Barrie how to dream, so too does he pull the depressed and lonely Peter back out of his shell and reminding him how to be a child in “Believe,” perhaps the most energetic number in the show. This toe-tapping, smile-inducing, make-your-heart-happy musical number is coupled with the magic that is musical theater as Kensington Gardens is transformed into a balloon-filled mermaid lagoon.
Like any good musical, our gorgeous leading lady gets her shining moment on stage for her nostalgic, goosebump-raising ballad. As Gibbs pours her heart into “Sylvia’s Lullaby,” she sings with a voice made of sparkling crystals and tinkling silver bells, lifting her captive audience up into the sky and away into a sea of stars.
When paired with Sullivan for their oh-so-cliché-but-I’d-be-devastated-if-it-wasn’t-there duet “Neverland,” this journey through the sky continues to the second star to the left and straight on ’till morning. Sullivan’s voice gives a glimpse into Neverland for the first time as he opens the door to the fantastic world he created to cope with his brother’s death, this time full of the boyish and heartwarming figments of the Llewelyn Davies children’s imaginations.
As Act I comes to a close, scenic designer Scott Park, lighting designer Kenneth Posner, projection designer Jon Driscoll and illusions coordinator Paul Kieve steal the show in their utterly brilliant design for the final sequence. Real and imaginary blend together as time becomes an infinite stretch of turning gears and the ticking of the minute hand on the clock in the spectacularly staged “Circus of Your Mind.” As characters swirl in and out of Barrie’s subconscious from the merry-go-round of his mind, out crawls the force that is Captain Hook (Conor McGiffin).
Serving as Barrie’s alter ego, McGiffin slinks onto the stage with a silky voice that can stop time, holding the audience in the palm of his hand — or in this case, a hook? Strutting around in that infamous red coat and a face full of that smudgy pirate eyeliner, Hook serves as a foil to Barrie, reminding him that the world, and certainly not theater, is not always full of sunshine and rainbows.
Tormented by a band of angry pirates, Barrie is terrified of his own inner darkness as the stage becomes the rolling waves of the sea. Suspended high above the ground, the Jolly Roger is lifted into the sky as Barrie finally brandishes a sword of his own, looking far more at ease as a pirate with no tie and rolled up shirt sleeves than he ever did as a well-mannered gentleman in his formal suit. As the Jolly Roger comes to life for the first time, Barrie finds his confidence and takes control of his life, giving Sullivan that shining vocal moment he so desperately deserves.
Act II gets a shining moment of its own in Gibbs’ and Sullivan’s falling-in-love duet “What You Mean to Me.” Performed with a single light placed on the stage, this elegant number is effortlessly simple as their shadows, in true Peter Pan fashion, dance and spin, becoming characters of their own. Every movement is delicately planned and gracefully executed, creating a love story most of us only dream about.
As their feelings for each other grow stronger, there is a shift in the Llewelyn Davies family. Sullivan and Gibbs have mastered the art of subtle communication and realistic pantomime as they hold conversations with their eyes, creating a world all their own.
It is not until the end of Act II that we see the “play” that Barrie has created. Familiar characters and costumes fill the stage as the magic of Neverland is brought to life for the first time.
The peppy and forever optimistic score captures the essence of childhood fun and reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. Although full of clichés, they are precisely what makes this musical so loveable. Everyone knows fairies will die if you don’t believe, and thus we as an audience happily clap along to save the life of our darling Tinker Bell. While finding that elusive buried treasure is less likely than winning the lottery, we can’t help but hope that our heroes will finally be the ones to discover its secret whereabouts.
Mermaids, pirates, fairies, flying children and ticking crocodiles have long since been our invitation back into the world of dreams and make-believe. The cast of “Finding Neverland” is a much needed reminder that sometimes it’s ok to live in a world that’s a little upside down where your feet don’t touch the ground.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel.
Morgan Politzer is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.