As you get older, one of the more interesting and, perhaps, melancholy aspects of life is watching things you identified as cultural icons slip into the darkness of lost memory. Mary Tyler Moore, who died recently, starred in two of my favorite sitcoms of all time and represented a certain type of woman who combined beauty and smarts, elegance and sensuality, and most important for those of us inspired to change the role of women in society, the idea that a woman could be independent, a leader, and an equal partner to any man with whom she shared her life. Moore meant a lot to me and to others of my generation, but my students had never heard of her. I overheard a 14-year-old student the other day who claimed to have never heard of Oprah Winfrey or Helen Keller. He was even iffy on the concept of 9/11. I asked him what planet he hailed from, but you see my point. Time erases significance, and who knows which events are immune from that phenomenon? The Beatles? Maybe. But not Mary Tyler Moore. Not Winfrey or Keller or Barbra Streisand. Six months ago, I would have thought the foundations of democracy that our Founding Fathers developed were lasting, but now “alternate facts” but that concept in question.
Which is a very roundabout way to get into a discussion about Peter Pan. But here I am, ready to talk about the touring production of the relatively new musical, Finding Neverland, that I took in last night with my parents, and I find myself ruminating on my lifelong relationship with the Boy Who Never Grew Up. I was probably four or five when I made the acquaintance of Pan in the form of a middle-aged actress on TV. The remarkable Mary Martin flew across my tiny black and white screen and later remade the whole thing in color, and I was hooked! (Ha ha! That pun crept up on me, I swear!)
And it’s odd, because I actually find the musical rather dull. I have watched it in many incarnations, both live and on the screen. I have directed it – it is one of the only shows in my directing career where I sold out a 1600-seat auditorium. (The Sound of Music was the other.) Hands down, my favorite experience with Pan was acting the part of Smee in a production! That was a delight from start to finish, largely because many of my students played Lost Boys, Indians and pirates, but also because our director saw Captain Hook and Smee as a vaudevillian super couple, and we were given free rein to establish that relationship on stage. It was a blast. However, the musical drags terribly in the middle, despite the fact that every few minutes a different group – pirates! kids! mermaids! crocodiles! – invades the stage and supplants the previous gathering. And Wendy really is a drag, isn’t she? At the end, she grows up and misses her chance with Peter, but given that she behaves like a reproving nanny throughout, did she and the Boy in Green ever stand a chance together?
It would seem obvious that I’ve grown less enchanted with Peter Pan because I myself have grown up (except I’m still pretty infantile in all the most important ways!) Peter Pan, the musical, still gets performed a lot. There is also a ballet, a play called Peter and the Starcatchers that provides a whole new perspective on the creation of the characters, and several movies of varying quality that grapple with the story. The whole shebang stems from J.M. Barrie, a Scottish novelist and playwright, who based the character of Peter on a group of young brothers he befriended in London at the turn of the last century. Barrie became an increasingly important part of the Llewelyn Davies family over the course of time, and when first their father and then their mother died, the boys were taken in and co-raised by Barrie and their grandmother.
Barrie was introduced to the two oldest brothers, George and Jack, in Kensington Gardens during a run-in between the boys and Barrie’s St. Bernard, Porthos. He later met Sylvia at a dinner party, where she newly blessed with a third son, Peter. Two more boys, Michael and Nico would follow. Barrie invented Peter Pan as a character to entertain George and Jack equating Peter to their baby brother and suggesting the newborn could fly because all babies had previously been birds (really, the things folks tell us about the facts of life!) This occurred in 1897, and in 1902, Pan became a supporting character in a novel called The Little White Bird. Then Barrie wrote a play about Peter’s adventures with the Darling children that was produced in 1904 and continuously revised for years. In 1911, Barrie wrote a novel called Peter and Wendy expanding the story of their adventures and pretty much signaling to all that Peter Pan would be Barrie’s raison d’etre for the rest of his life.
I tell you all this because the latest incarnation of the Pan saga is a musical called Finding Neverland, which intermingles the beloved characters with the story of how Barrie created them and how his relationship to the Llewellyn-Davies family inspired this. It is, at least, a different approach and, on the surface, a fun idea. Over time, a lot of effort has been made to smudge and sexualize Barrie’s relationship with children. This piece doesn’t go there; instead, it shows Barrie as something of a man-child himself, uncomfortable with stuffy British society as epitomized by his awful wife and her friends. He seeks solace in the fantastical world of the theatre and in the rambunctious fantasies of young boys. The musical, with music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, a book by James Graham, and direction by the ever-creative Diane Paulus, took several years of development to reach Broadway, where it ran for 565 performances. In these days of shipping in busloads of tourists for family musicals that run for decades, that’s a barely respectable run, and I have to say that I ignored the show when I went to New York, based on a quick listen of some of the songs and generally negative word of mouth from friends.
My opportunity to see Finding Neverland arrived last evening. Mom, Dad and I trundled into a cab, captives to the taxi driver who ranted for fifteen minutes on why Trump is a one-term nightmare, the Democrats are losers, and he and his family didn’t vote in the election, and then made our way to the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco’s Civic Center. We had great seats close up, and the little boy sitting in front of us who snapped our picture (below) looked exactly like Peter Pan and explained to me that he is a working actor. And then the curtain rose and we began our journey.
What we got was a fine production: the acting company was, without I think a single exception, first-rate, the setting, lights and effects lovely, the staging interesting, and the orchestra of six created a lush, full, totally synthesized sound in that huge theatre that did no harm to the show but should serve as a reminder to the musicians’ union that technology is not the working musician’s friend. Kevin Kern had a thrilling voice as Barrie, Christine Dyer matched him in charm and intensity as Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies, Tom Hewitt, a stalwart veteran of Broadway and national tours, essayed the double role of Charles Frohman, the American producer of Barrie’s new play about Pan, and Captain Hook (which I’ve seen him play somewhere in the original musical) with aplomb. Best of all were the four boys who played George, Jack, Peter and Michael (Nico, alas, has been excised from existence for this version of history), each of them a triple threat of singing, movement and acting. Early on, their formidable grandmother Mrs. DuMaurier (yes, the family was related to Daphne DuMaurier) rasps out the old saw, “Children should be seen and not heard.” But every appearance by this quartet proved the opposite to be true as their presence gave life to the entire proceedings.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, the fine company is betrayed by a weak book, weak melodies and weak lyrics. The play itself is simply not very good.
Of course, one has to pick and choose when setting historical events onstage. And sometimes in the course of editing, some truths have to be altered or even excised from the proceedings. I have been told that the book was sharply reshaped before the tour to address complaints of its being unwieldy and confusing. The libretto I saw last night wasn’t either: instead, we got a mélange of clichéd story devices. Unhappily married man cheered up by adorable widow, children and dog? Check! (Sylvia is made a widow here at the time of their meeting. Not true.) Acting company consisting of stock types (many clichéd gay men and diva-esque females) balking at doing a children’s play instead of Shakespeare . . . and then rediscovering their own inner children in one number consisting largely of nursery rhymes set to music? Check! The signaling of a major character’s imminent death through a series of increasingly alarming coughing spells over the course of the play? Check! The curmudgeonly grandmother who doesn’t like or understand children – and then, in a heartbeat, gets this beautiful reprise at the end to show to signify that she does understand, love and accept everyone and everything? (Pant, pant, pant . . . and check!)
Although Barrie met the family when Peter was but a baby, in this storyline Peter is aged and made prominent as the only son who seems to mourn the death of his father. I assume the purpose of this is manifold: to focus Barrie’s interest on the namesake for his fabled creation and to insert the standby plotline of a child not accepting a new father figure in place of his lost papa until something happens and it all turns around. So here Peter is cold, then warms up, then gets furious that Barrie is acting all fatherly, then embraces it, then gets pissed off again because his mother dies, then turns around because after all, Barrie is loving and he inspired Peter to be a writer and he named his creation after the kid. (No mention is made of the tragic fact that Peter’s life was so weighed down by his connection to the character that he committed suicide!)
What kept the production from failing to engage me entirely was the strength of the performances and of Paulus’ direction. Two years ago, Diane Paulus transformed Pippin into a circus extravaganza and brought a fair to middling 70’s musical back into our consciousness. (Why is it that everyone who directs Pippin, myself included, feels the need to change it somehow?) Here, she rescues the trite script with astonishing visual references to the story of Peter Pan. Paulus weaves subtle clues in the boys’ appearance and performance to indicate how they inspired Barrie to bring his creation to life. The depiction of the acting troupe is almost too over the top to be taken seriously, and yet there is a cumulative emotional effect by the end as they grudgingly accept, and then embrace, the parts that have been thrust upon them. When they leave the theatre on opening night of Barrie’s play and perform it all over again in the Llewelyn-Davies nursery, you get the sense of how powerful this play might have been. That sequence climaxes with a death scene so beautiful it leaves you gasping and wishing that the whole evening had been as rapturous, and that the lugubrious score and not-so-witty script had not let us all down.
A theatre friend of mine whose opinion I respect a great deal called Finding Neverland “a super charming traditional musical comedy.” In terms of recent productions, I would reserve that description for a show like Waitress. I fear that what I found in this version of Neverland left me wishing for a journey to a far more magical place.