“How about a musical?”
“Please! That is the lowest form of entertainment!”
This ironic dialogue in “Finding Neverland,” playing at the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania through Sept. 21, is very much contradicted by this wonderful and charming musical itself!
I assumed initially “Finding Neverland” would be a Disneyesque production of “Peter Pan.”
It has many of the delightful qualities one may associate with the still-popular 1953 Disney film, but it is something entirely different. It is instead a biography of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie and how he came to write one of the most famous children’s works of all time.
It reminded me slightly of “Topsy-Turvy,” a film which gives the viewer a behind-the-scenes look into how W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan came to write their operetta “The Mikado.”
Like “Topsy-Turvy,” “Finding Neverland” takes poetic license, yet achieves something above and beyond historical fact by celebrating the world of creativity and the imagination.
“I am not a child,” said Charles Frohman (Braden Sweneney), the venerable American financier of Barrie’s plays (and he wrote many more than “Peter Pan”). The production takes place in 1903 in England, a time and place when children should be “seen and not heard,” to quote from the play.
Childhood was considered a negative period in which children, supposedly of inherent evil according to the old theology, were born tainted with sin and thus more open to temptation than disciplined adults.
The paradigm shifted only with Romanticism, especially its lyrical representative of this message in English, William Worsdworth, who wrote glowingly of “the Youth, who daily farther from the east Must travel, (but) still is Nature’s Priest, and by the vision splendid is on his way attended…” The quest of Barrie is to awaken the inner child, not only in children who are too-adult like in Edwardian society but in his financier, his actors and, finally, his audiences as he brings to fruition his play “Peter Pan.”
We enjoy both the story of Peter Pan (Wendy and Captain Hook and Tinkerbell are on hand) as well as the story of Barrie, his scandalously close female friend (for the overly moralistic society at the time) and four boys he tries to awaken to his dream.
The sets are wonderfully evocative, in Kensington Gardens, for example, or with iconic buildings of London such as the Tower of London in the background.
The adults and children are dressed beautifully in Edwardian costumes, but the latter are clad in stiff suits to represent the repression of the naturalness of childhood.
With all his zest for life and mad exuberance, Barrie excites the reaction in his increasingly estranged wife.
He grows mad with her reproach that he lives in “The Circus of Your Mind.” The wonderfully exuberant Mark Bacon as Barrie, however, takes this as a song cue! The choreography during “Circus of Your Mind” illustrates effectively the passing of time with large poles representing the clock hands as well as the spinning merry-go-round.
Meanwhile, Frohman pressures Barrie into writing a commercially successful play within limited time.
Perhaps such pressures inspired Barrie to freeze time and aging in his play of “Peter Pan,” the tale of the boy who never ages and never grows up?
In the performance of “The Circus of your Mind,” we also see a very special feature of this production: Its effective mixture of animation and beautiful special effects creating a carousel which seems real and unreal all at once.
Indeed, this show everywhere celebrates childhood imagination through slides, animation, colorful backdrops, red balloons and fairy dust – all done so the audience might “Believe,” with the show’s breakout song sung by Bacon, his soulmate Sylvia (Josephine Florence Cooper, who also sings beautifully “Sylvia’s Lullaby”) and the wonderfully talented children Peter, George, Jack and Michael, played by different actors, depending on the performance.
Children will especially enjoy the live dog and the dancing bear (not real)!
The magic in the air is assisted along by music supervisor and conductor J.P. Meyer fronting a small but effective five-piece live orchestra.
Are you ready for a last day trip at the tail end of summer? Are you ready to “Believe?”
Then “Finding Neverland” at Pennsylvania Dutch Country’s Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre, topped with an enchanting meal and magical desserts might be just the thing for you!