BY ANTHONY CHASE
A year ago, it wouldn’t have seemed possible that Diane Paulus, the Tony Award winning director who has staged Broadway revivals of Pippin, Hair, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess would be in Buffalo, restaging her Broadway production of Finding Neverland in preparation for an opening night at Shea’s, followed by a national tour.
Ever since she and her husband, Randy Weiner, staged a disco version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, called The Donkey Show, off-Broadway in 1995, Paulus has been an important name in the American theater. That production ran for a decade. Her work on Pippin made her the third woman in history to be honored with the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical. Since 2009, she has been the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University.
What happened to make Shea’s Buffalo the place where Paulus would remount and refine her most recent Broadway hit for the road?
The New York State legislature has provided tax incentives for theatrical producers who will rehearse and open their shows in New York. Shea’s presenter, Albert Nocciolino points out that the benefits are numerous. A city that can host the technical rehearsals that launch a national tour gets first dibs at seeing the show, as well as the economic benefit of the additional week of hotels and living expenses for visiting artists, and work for local technicians.
Even with Broadway located right here in New York, in the past, states that offered tax credits like Illinois, Rhode Island, and Louisiana got almost all the shows. Suddenly, New York State is in the game. Buffalo has Finding Neverland. Elmira has Elf. Rochester has Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Schenectady has An American in Paris. Syracuse has Jersey Boys. Utica has The Bodyguard.
Interestingly, the lead producer on Finding Neverland is Harvey Weinstein, president of Miramax Films, a University at Buffalo graduate known locally for producing rock concerts with Harvey & Corky Productions in Buffalo in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
Paulus looks at the national tour of Finding Neverland as a golden chance to revisit and refine her show. Adding a song where one was needed; restoring music that was cut.
“I see this as an extraordinary opportunity to make some changes to improve the show,” says Paulus. “Buffalo will be the first to hear a brand new song. In addition, we’re embellishing the imagery of the opening, and giving the show a more efficient entry into the story telling. As pleased as I am with what we did on Broadway, I always felt that we took too long to get the story. I want to launch the action in a faster way.”
Paulus makes her point with a particularly visual metaphor.
“I wanted to take less time to get this story into the sky!”
The fight image is, of course, a deliberate reference to Peter Pan, the subject of the show.
Based on the Academy Award-winning film, also called Finding Neverland, the musical tells the story of playwright J.M. Barrie’s relationship with the family that inspired him to write Peter Pan, a beautiful widow named Sylvia and her four young sons: Jack, George, Michael and Peter.
During the technical rehearsals at Shea’s, the company has been putting in long days, leaving the theater at 11 o’clock at night. Reportedly, the process has been rigorous and the reworked show is, indeed, shorter, with more efficient story telling than on Broadway. Cast members express admiration and enthusiasm for the music and the choreography.
For her part, Paulus is excited about her cast.
“I am delighted with Kevin Kern as J.M. Barrie,” she enthuses. “He was the understudy on Broadway, and he is just marvelous in the role. It is wonderful to see him leading his own company!”
“We also have Tom Hewitt as Captain Hook, and he is terrific. And so is Christine Dwyer [one of Broadway’s Elphabas in Wicked], who plays Sylvia.”
Paulus sums up the experience.
“This is really an opportunity to improve and deepen the work, and Buffalo will be the first to see it!”