Monetizing Peter

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday January 24, 2017
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<i>Peter Pan</i> creator<br>J.M. Barrie (Kevin Kern ) has an imaginary confrontation with his creation<br>Capt. Hook (Tom Hewitt) in the musical <i>Finding Neverland</i><br> now at the Orpheum Theatre. Photo: Carol Rosegg
Peter Pan creator
J.M. Barrie (Kevin Kern ) has an imaginary confrontation with his creation
Capt. Hook (Tom Hewitt) in the musical Finding Neverland
now at the Orpheum Theatre. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The abjectly pleasant musical Finding Neverland is the latest attempt to pan for gold in J.M. Barrie's tale of the boy who wouldn't grow up. Just about everything about it can slip into one pre-fabricated mold or another, as theatrical surprises are eschewed and conventionality is held tight to its bosom. Still, it's smart enough to push enough of the right buttons to soothe a smile from audiences.

The touring edition now at the Orpheum Theatre has been spun off from the recent Broadway production that closed last year. Despite tepid reviews and not a single Tony nomination, the show managed a respectable 565 performances. It didn't recoup all the investors' money, but producer Harvey Weinstein has promised them that the current tour, a planned London production, and a possible movie version will eventually generate a profit. "Finding Neverland is now a brand," he said. "It becomes about monetizing the brand."

In that statement, you may deduce some of what ails Finding Neverland. Weinstein produced the 2004 movie Finding Neverland that starred Johnny Depp as Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie. With that promising brand in hand, he set out to have the movie turned into a musical. It was launched in the UK in 2012, soon after which all the creators were dismissed and replaced with a new team that did get the title to Broadway in what was possibly a more commercial form.

Both the movie and the musical themselves derive from Allan Knee's 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, which recounted how Barrie, already a successful playwright in London, befriended four boys and their widowed mother as he pulled them into his elaborate storytelling of derring-do adventures. Barrie used these stories as inspiration for Peter Pan, named for one of the Llewelyn Davies boys, and it opened in London in 1904, creating the brand that has been monetized in just about every decade since.

James Graham's libretto is a purposefully candy-floss retelling, with Barrie's la-di-da wife's infidelity with a silly fop played for laughs, as is the flamboyant horror of the original acting company's toward Barrie's new play. A discreet telltale cough into a lace handkerchief early in the play does signal the eventual discreet departure of Mrs. Llewelyn Davies in a swirl of fairy dust. And speaking of fairies, do we really need a har-har joke playing off contemporary readings of the word?

Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy's songs are seldom less than pleasing to the ear, while never stimulating it with more than pop-Victorian good-cheer numbers and power ballads of little distinction. If you find yourself needing more stimulation, you might try the little quiz I began playing, guessing at the upcoming rhyme from the preceding keyword. Their predictability can easily earn you points.

Directed by the estimable Diane Paulus, whose revivals of Pippin, Hair, and Porgy and Bess were revelatory, the production is low on imagination. The cast is a competent crew, with Kevin Kern a friendly, boisterous presence as Barrie, Tom Hewitt doing what is needed as the sputtering theatrical producer (and occasional Capt. Hook), and Christine Dwyer sweetly frail (and sometimes in the high notes of her songs as well) as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies.

In Finding Neverland, the names are all true; only the events have been changed to protect the innocent. If you want to know what happened to the actual Peter Llewelyn Davies, please Google now. Or better yet, don't. There is something to be said for taking in as much fairy dust while you still can.

 

Finding Neverland will run through Feb. 12 at the Orpheum Theatre. Tickets are $55-$275. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to shnsf.com.