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Theater review: "Finding Neverland" 

All made of stars

When Scottish novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie conjured his most famous character, he likely never dreamed the boy who wouldn't grow up would also live on forever. But Peter Pan -- once a figment of Barrie's imagination -- is now a household term: a literary hero who has inspired countless books, movies, and theatrical adaptations. And while the tale of Peter Pan, Captain Hook, Wendy, and the Lost Boys is one that fascinates, the story of how Neverland and all of its characters came to be is one worth hearing as well.

"Finding Neverland" was adapted from the 2004 Academy Award-winning film of the same name starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, and it's based on a true story. Barrie was already a playwright at the turn of the 20th century, but he was lacking a muse until he met Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four sons -- Peter, George, Jack, and Michael -- in Kensington Gardens one afternoon. Barrie struck up an unlikely friendship with the youngsters and their mother, becoming part of their life. When it was time to write his next play, he based it on the imaginative adventures he had with the Llewelyn Davies family.

The theater production, with music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, and book by James Graham, opened on Broadway in 2015 with Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston as an executive producer. The show featured big names like Kelsey Grammer and Laura Michelle Kelly (Broadway's "Mary Poppins"), and it ran for 17 months before closing last August. And although "Finding Neverland" didn't win any big awards on Broadway -- just a few nominations -- it's the kind of show that draws a crowd even without professional accolades. The regional tour opened earlier this month in Buffalo (Rochester is the third stop).

The show's cast is sizeable, and many of Barrie's most famous characters have cameos, since this is a play-within-a-play at times. Kevin Kern (as J.M. Barrie) leads with his gripping tenor vocals and earnest portrayal of the playwright. Opposite him is Christine Dwyer (Sylvia Llewelyn Davies), who has an ethereal beauty and just the right amount of spunk to be convincing as the mother of four energetic young boys. The pair's duos "Neverland" and "What You Mean to Me" are two of the most memorable numbers in the show, as the actors have a translatable chemistry.

Tom Hewitt (Charles Frohman, Captain Hook) is the sarcastic, swashbuckling theater owner who gives Barrie's play a chance. In droll Upstate New York, Hewitt was obviously a crowd favorite, as were cast members Dwelvan David (Mr. Henshaw/acting troupe) and Matt Wolpe (Mr. Cromer/acting troupe). The numbers "We Own the Night," "Hook," and "Play" spotlight the ensemble, which is vocally strong and performs much of the toe-tapping, head-bobbing choreography by Mia Michaels. Perhaps the most enjoyable number is "We're All Made of Stars," which is performed by the Llewelyn Davies brothers: Eli Tokash (Peter), Finn Faulconer (George), Mitchell Wray (Jack), and Jordan Cole (Michael). For young performers, the four showed an incredible aptitude onstage, easily keeping up with the adult performers around them.

"Finding Neverland" adds to the growing number of projections turning up in touring productions. There have been few touring shows without a projection in months -- but really, who can blame the designers? It's less expensive than building a set and sometimes more effective. Projection designer Jon Driscoll has created floating clouds above London, stately trees in Kensington Garden, and a host of flying, tick-tocking clocks to complement the physical sets -- including a floor-to-ceiling windowed nursery and a cozy rose garden -- by scenic designer Scott Pask. Costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb are multi-textured and whimsical, with highlights like oversized animal costumes and a sweeping mermaid gown. Then, of course, there is Peter Pan's classic look, knee-high socks and knickers for the boys, and elegant gowns for Mrs. Barrie.

There's been a surge in female Broadway musical directors over the last few years, and director Diane Paulus has earned her place among the best with this production. It's not an easy feat to present a well-known (and loved) tale to hundreds of fans each night, but Paulus somehow makes Neverland, Peter Pan, and J.M. Barrie even more magical.

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