Special effects make ‘Finding Neverland’ a must see


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‘Finding Neverland’ will be at the Marcus Center from February 20-25.

Traveling musical casts often have to make compromises, simply due to the difficulty of hauling large stage sets and lack of permanent resources. But when it came to Milwaukee’s opening production of “Finding Neverland,” hosted Feb. 20 by the Marcus Center for Performing Arts, the last word on my mind upon viewing the incredible stage effects, stunning vocals and clever acting was “compromised.”

Packing up after a week or so, or in this case, after the five days of shows that will take place at the Marcus Center from Feb. 20-25, it is a great feat to leave in the large, often tricky elements of production. These astounding aspects include suspending performers above the stage with invisible contraptions, making benches appear to move all on their own, and even a marvelous wind tunnel that shimmers with floating glitter in the second to last scene of the show.

Combining these technologies with classic, old-English costumes and music, “Finding Neverland” revisits the original “Peter Pan” in a way that avoids feeling bookish or tacky. Instead, the audience feels like the children seen on stage, awestruck by the technological features and great performance.

Set in early-1900s London, the musical follows playwright J.M. Barrie (played by Will Ray) as he journeys through the struggle of developing a new play idea and the blossoming relationship with the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (played by Lael Van Keuren) and her sons. Inspired by the boys’ imaginative nature, Barrie eventually turns the gang’s games and stories into the tale we all know today — Peter Pan – but not without its share of loss, hardship and heartbreak along the way.

From the get-go, on-stage complexity and movement were clear priorities for cast and producers of “Finding Neverland.” After a brief narration by Barrie, the brightly lit and dynamic tune “Welcome to London” captures viewers’ attention.

This energy pulses throughout most of the first act before settling down during the tragic story of the late Mr. Llewelyn Davies – a moment portrayed remarkably well by Van Keuren and the young actors.

With this dip in tone, the show switches to a darker mood and kicks off my favorite number, “Circus of Your Mind.” Almost as if the realization of Sylvia and the boys’ sadness opens up doors of stress in Barrie’s own world. Viewers watch as moving doorways and supporting characters took their powerful stab at the playwright.

Witnessing such an amazing number, however, made the next section of the musical feel inferior.

Awful music and confusing dialogue pair with the introduction of the famous villain, Captain James Hook, (played by John Davidson) which almost ends the first act on a sour note.

Thankfully, one of the play’s most known pieces, “Stronger,” came to the rescue. Its awesome rope ladders, and magnificent vocals from Ray whisk the audience into intermission before there’s a chance to be upset.

The second act began much like the first, with a great ensemble piece, “The World is Upside Down,” which rights all wrongs done by the weird Hook trauma from before.

The second act seems to move faster than the first — to the musical’s benefit — and the only moment of particular noteworthiness was the remarkable talent of actor Turner Birthsiel.

The 10-year-old’s song opposite Ray, “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” contained harmonies with more precision than most adults and an impressive, jaw-dropping solo.

While the glimpse into the bright future of Birthsiel was indeed magical, the most magical moment of the show came with the conclusion to the show’s second to last track, “Neverland.” Theater technicians stage Van Keuren inside a wind tunnel that circulates glitter in a scene that feels other-worldly. As the lights faded to black, soft music plays, and only Van Keuren’s shawl blows alone in the tunnel on the otherwise empty stage. The ambiguity and wonder I left with seems like the absolute perfect way to end the show …

… But then it doesn’t end.

For some reason, they make the ending happy.  The boys come back out, run around and chirp in their little voices, but nothing is added to the story by their actions. I sat there baffled.

Despite the unnecessary ending, the positives of the show far outweigh the negatives. And with only a few shows left in Milwaukee, anyone with interest in witnessing mind-boggling stage effects or simply seeing a great musical should make the trip downtown to catch a glimpse of Neverland before it’s gone.