Critical Review


Through Spotlight Education, Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Critical Review program gives high school students the opportunity to attend and review touring Broadway productions. A writing program, Critical Review enhances critical thinking and creative response skills. Students receive press kits for each show, and attend workshops led by experts in the field on topics ranging from lighting design to choreography.

Students post their reviews and interact through our online portal — online access is required for participation. Students are accepted through an application process.

This program is free of cost to participants thanks to the generous underwriting of Fred and Ann Moore.

Applications for 2017 – 2018 are now closed. Please check back in in late August/early September, 2018 to apply for next year.


Finding Neverland Fails to Take Off by Karina Karbo-Wright

The musical that failed to capture the hearts of Broadway goers in 2015, upholds its mediocre reputation on its tour across the country. On November 5th, the lackluster musical, Finding Neverland closes its run at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis. Finding Neverland tells the true story of the author who captured so many hearts: JM Barrie. The story follows Barrie on his quest to self-rediscovery with the help of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four displaced little boys. The musical attempts to portray the light-hearted joy the four little boys, George, Peter, Jack, and Michael exude while juggling the heavy topics of divorce and death. The boys inspire Barrie to write a play about their imaginary adventures unlike anyone London had ever seen before. When everyone else doubts him, Barrie finds the support of the boys and the love of their mother to push him to bring his play to life. An amazing success, Barrie and his new four boys live out the legacy of his incredibly successful story: Peter Pan.

The production fails to fly for the lack of diction leaves the audience wondering what is going on.  The curtains clashing patterns set the pace for the relationship between the scenes and the musical numbers. The vocal agility specifically presented by Billy Harrigan Tighe as JM Barrie and Peter on October 31st attempt to distract from the noise onstage. The costumes and sometimes gaudy blocking detracted from the emotion the scenes were meant to display. The strange arrangement of character s and lack of any real chemistry between all of them continued to bury the show deeper. Charles Frohman played by John Davidson spearheaded the lack of diction that overcame the stage and many of his humorous lines were lost. While the lack of diction contributed, musical numbers and scenes with underscore were overpowered by the orchestra. While the pit was extremely talented and dynamic, the instruments drowned out the action on stage as opposed to highlighting them. The audience could find some solace within the exquisite choreography best displayed by Dee Tomasetta and Mary Kate Hartung as Peter Pan and Wendy. Numbers like “Believe,” and “Stronger” (Part 2) also represented the great work of Mia Michaels. Yet even this had its downfalls. In numbers like “What You Mean to Me” the choreography was too gaudy and the show became more of a dance recital as opposed to a musical.

While the costumes were plain and not cohesive, the set and technical elements more than made up for the lack of color on stage. The incorporation of set pieces in songs like “Stronger” (Part 1 and 2) and the “Circus of Your Mind” helped support the tone of each individual song. The pirate ship, the ropes, and other pieces appropriately highlighted the scenes. The most surprising and beautiful element was the wind tunnel. The death of one of the main characters is portrayed through a symbolic flourish of a coat and glitter. This was the only element of the show that lived up to magical world of Peter Pan.

Even though many aspects of the Finding Neverland fell short, the fantastic dancing abilities of Peter Pan and Wendy, and the dynamic voices of Barre, Sylvia, and Peter helped the show shine. Ultimately, I would not recommend the show to those who love the adorable story of Peter Pan.

Finding Neverland Review by Jack Molter

This Tuesday, the Orpheum theatre debuted Finding Neverland. The play tells the story of J.M. Barrie, famed author of Peter Pan, and his journey to discover and write his trademark story. On his travel to discover his child within, Barrie, played by Billy Harrigan Tighe, befriended the Llewelyn-Davies family, made up of four boys and their mother. The boys inspired Barrie rediscover his childlike sense of wonder, and create Peter Pan.

While the show was on Broadway, it was raved as a fantastic, family friendly show, and people were furious when Finding Neverland was snubbed of a single Tony nomination, but frankly it isn’t too hard to see why. While Neverland excels in many areas, the overall plot is not one of them. The story is bland, slow and mostly devoid of any substantial conflict until the climax. It also grossly glazes over any other mildly adult themes. Just because something is geared towards children does not mean that it has to be childish. Not to compare Diane Paulus to Pixar, but a prime example of my point, is the 2015 hit, Inside Out. The film addresses themes like confronting the past, finding yourself, and emotional intelligence, without alienating an older audience.  Instead of embracing those opportunities, Neverland brushed off those themes like unwanted dandruff.

Even through the subpar plot, Neverland shined in some areas. The first was the dialogue between some characters. Especially during the scenes involving extras, the script was brilliantly witty and even made fun of some of its own flaws at times. The scenes involving fictional cast members of Barrie’s show often stole the scene, as well as oversized, fluffy monsters that seemingly could not really be dogs. If these small things could have been emulated, I feel as though the show could have been a hit for everyone.

The play also dazzled through their musical numbers. On their own, the most of the numbers were wonderful, although some a little slow. Even though the singing and choreography were superb, some of the numbers felt like they didn’t fit in. Often times, they changed the entire tone of the scene, usually taking comedic dialogue, and transitioned to a slower, more serious song. Although both were great separately, it felt like they did not fit.

Although I had some criticism, Finding Neverland was by no means a bad show. Much of the audience was in stitches and times, and there was no shortage of howling from the back rows, but it had flaws. If you have children, and want to experience the Orpheum, than Neverland is perfect for you. But if you are a fan of the more plot-centric, edgier shows, then Neverland is not for you.

Finding Neverland and Finding Imagination by Anastasia Setter

Finding Neverland, starring the captivating J.M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) sweeps the audience into 19th century England to the vivid, bittersweet making of the classic tale of the flying boy we’ve all come to know and love, Peter Pan. Beginning as a playwright who struggles with his own imagination, Barrie soon begins to discover the play he writes to be inspired within the very people around him.

Based on James Graham’s book Finding Neverland, the Broadway original cast flew to the stage in March 2015. The 2017 touring cast stole the hearts of the Minnesota audience on October 31st, taking us by the hand into the story that revisits every beautiful childhood dream. The show takes an approach at being afraid and almost controlled by one’s own imagination as Barrie is taken over by his thoughts as ideas brim from his thoughts and fears, conveyed by theatrical and gorgeous choreography and technical elements. This contrasts, however, with the humorously clockwork atmosphere and movement of the town.

Finding Neverland encompasses everything from humor that erupts the audience into laughter with flamboyant characters from the ensemble who steal the scene to moments where the action and intense orchestration takes the audience to the edge of their seats and surreal chemistry moments with stupendous amounts of passion that brings a smile to every face. This humor comes with small moments from the ensemble, specifically the jocular Nathan Duszny and Dwelvan David both carried out to extremity with their facial expression. This chemistry also has a few shining moments. The filial relationship which is pivotal in the storyline for Barrie is that of him and main character Sylvia’s children, specifically Peter. This relationship brings out the child in Barrie, challenging him to bring imagination into dire situations. The breathtaking relationship of Barrie and Sylvia is one that shone through as the guiding hope for Barrie, as she is his hope and his Neverland.

The simple yet symbolic take on costumes in this show was astonishing, specifically in the color of Sylvia’s dress. Starting in a pink, frilly dress that contrasts with the other women’s’ cool colored dresses, it suggests that this character is different and full of life. Her dress fades to blue as she begins to lose her imagination and becomes sick, finally to white, which symbolizes her departure from Earth. The lighting was extremely creative, displaying single spotlights only in critical moments of silence and chemistry, and bright lighting when in scenes with multiple people. The projection of images on the background of the stage brought the scene to life when it seemed as if this already out-of-this-world show went quite literally into the stars. From the seamless set transitions of the actors on stage to the symbolic meaning of the technological elements, these things really were the icing on the cake for Finding Neverland.

To the very end, Finding Neverland did not cease to astound the audience with what seemed like a whimsical adventure that took us into the depths of imagination. It is a true adventure, and challenges one to take their own Peter Pan’s hand and drift off into the Neverland of their own imagination.

A Production Made of Stars by Ethan Donaldson

It amazes me to say that in Finding Neverland, now running at the Orpheum Theatre from October 31st to November 5th, the audience-favorite delightful fluffball of a dog isn’t even the best part. From the complex, smart set to the passionately developed characters, this production isn’t one to miss. Originally opening in 2012 before its run on Broadway in 2015, Finding Neverland is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. It tells the story of playwright J.M. Barrie (Billy Harrigan Tighe) and how he came to write Peter Pan. Along the way, he meets and forms a relationship with the widowed Sylvia (Lael Van Keuren) and her four children, who go on to inspire the story.

Tighe does an incredible job of portraying Barrie’s childlike and whimsical persona as well as his near-fatherly relationship to each of Sylvia’s kids. He is able to blend those aspects together while maintaining a wide enough contrast between them to leave room or a range of emotions and motivations. Van Keuren, for her part, also does a great job illustrating Sylvia’s devotion and youthfulness as well as playing on those when things get rough. This production also features an intensely lovable ensemble that feels extremely cohesive yet still character driven. The choreography is performed with great precision and attention to detail while carrying a great deal of emotion that drives the story along splendidly. The comedic timing of all cast members is also commendable, with each joke hitting exactly as it needed to get the biggest laugh possible.

The cast isn’t the only thing shining on that stage; there’s also a great deal of glitter. The set design enhances the story in so many ways, from the more complicated elements such as the wind tunnel swirling with the aforementioned glitter to the more simple elements such as three doorframes that, when rotating, create an enthralling spectacle that brings new meaning to “revolving door.” The only grievance I have with the set, and possibly the entire show, is that the projected backdrops occasionally became cheesy when they transitioned from simple backgrounds to several clips put together like a montage. I generally appreciated the projections, however, especially when the setting was a cloudy night complete with majestically floating clouds. The costumes were a delightful mix of period pieces and more modern designs that deliberately aligned with the style of the musical itself. The costumes for the average Londoner are much more drab than the whimsical, fantastical costumes for the characters in Barrie’s show as well as his imagination. The lighting was also very well designed, setting the stage with scattered, swirling lights for intense imagination scenes and bright, cheerful lights for an ordinary day in the park.

Finding Neverland by Jessica Wheeler

Finding Neverland was, most simply, filled with incredible technical elements and an adorable dog, but lacking an engaging plot. The show opened with Tinkerbell, a bright pinprick of light dancing around the stage and into Peter Pan’s hands: exactly what you’d expect from a musical titled Finding Neverland. You can understand my disappointment, then, when Peter Pan did not return until well into the second act. While I enjoyed the overarching story, there were too many times that I found myself bored by the length or lack of depth in a scene. Poor diction only added to my disinterest of these moments.

The true highlights of the show were the tech and the choreography. The projections of clouds, waves, and stars worked to bring alive the minds of the characters. Lighting was also heavily used in this show, casting breath taking shadows of two lovers dancing during one number. I found myself unable to look away from these graceful shadows even to experience the actors themselves. Near the end of act two, a wind tunnel was created, sending glitter and a dress flying and twirling in the air. This single technical element was quite possibly the closest thing to magic that I have experienced. Although there were many moments like these, filled with beauty and surprises, there was one technical element that was so upsetting, it was almost comical. Throughout most musical numbers and scenes, no matter the setting, backdrop panels painted like trees remained stubbornly on either side of the stage. These became so distracting that I often found myself thinking exclusively about them and why they were still on stage rather than the actual show.

Many elements of Finding Neverland became hit or miss, either blowing me away or seriously disappointing. The one thing that never failed to impress was the choreography. It was evident that a large portion of rehearsal time was dedicated to movement, which majorly paid off. The chorus moved together beautifully, their actions completely blending together to create the larger picture. I absolutely adored the many lifts and carries executed throughout the show, many of which created the whimsical appearance of flying. The costumes of the chorus helped to achieve cohesion as well: the perfect mix of similar enough to blend and different enough to allow individual moments. The ensemble was delightful in each and every number, never losing energy or expressing any uncertainty. Several of the leads did not carry this energy, but the four young Llewelyn Davies boys certainly did. Each boy had an incredibly well developed character, and considering that each actor plays more than one boy at different times, this was pleasantly surprising. One of my favorite numbers was We’re All Made of Stars, in which the boys are singing together, playing the ukulele, and creating rhythms using washboards and sticks. The amount of talent between the four left me speechless.

I was slightly disappointed with Finding Neverland. Many times, a soloist did not fill the stage, creating an empty and almost awkward relationship with the audience. I lost a majority of the lyrics to poor diction, and confusing set choices constantly distracted from the story. There were moments of brilliance in the ensemble and Llewelyn Davies boys, but I am not sure that they made up for these shortcomings. As an overall production, Finding Neverland was humorous and enjoyable, but one thing is certain: I wanted more Peter Pan!

Something About This Night Left the Theatre in Awe by Sam Irvin

Everyone knows the story of the lost boys who join with Indians to fight the pirates, along with their fairy friends. For those who don’t know, this is the story of Peter Pan. This wildly imaginative story must be from a genius mind and Finding Neverland is that story. Based on the movie of the same title, this musical brings to life the telling of J.M. Barrie and the boys he met in the park one day. These boys and their family became his inspiration, but even more so became his family. The touching story and entrancing music make the audience want to fly to Neverland themselves.

The ensemble is made up of Broadway veterans and beginners, but the talent is absolutely stunning all around. Billy Harrigan Tighe, who plays Barrie, has a full voice that fit the show well. He also plays the comedy very well, though still allowing the more emotional moments to fully extend. Christine Dwyer (Sylvia) portrays a very strong female who isn’t afraid to put herself out there for her family. Her songs are glorious, with her voice transporting us even further into the story. The children, specifically Connor Jameson Casey (Peter), are very mature in both their acting and singing abilities, but still emphasized their childish nature. The entire ensemble personalized every move and has amazing comedic timing, making this classically funny show hilarious.

The technical elements create many intriguing moments. The use of projections and the minimal set pieces to transport us into the characters’ imaginations was very purposeful and symbolic. As Barrie dove into the world of Peter Pan, the projections moved from hand-drawn to realistic, showcasing how real the story was becoming and how our imagination can become our reality if we let it. The building of the ship was powerful and the simple use of doors in “Circus of Your Mind” was effective and clever. The actors also became set pieces as they mimicked flying through lifts, and often made bigger pictures with their bodies. The choreography, done by Mia Michaels, was a mix of classic moves performed in a contemporary style which was very well executed. Overall the technical elements really created the most use of the space, all the while paying homage to Peter Pan with many well placed references throughout.

A very strong production, anyone will enjoy this show about enjoying your youth, trusting those around you, and sharing life with those who matter to you. The ensemble transform the stage into an adventure that no one should miss and no one would want to miss for everyone wants to go to Neverland, even just for a day. And remember we’re all made of stars.


  • To develop and enhance critical thinking, self-expression and analytical writing skills
  • To provide a unique and engaging forum for students learning outside of the classroom
  • To provide high school students the opportunity to develop an appreciation for live theatre

Elements of the Program

  • Participants see up to eight live theatre performances, often touring Broadway productions, at the Orpheum, State, Pantages or New Century Theatres and write reviews
  • Opportunity to review press materials provided to the professional media
  • Workshops with professionals in the theatre and journalism fields
  • Tour of one of the Trust’s Historic theatres
  • Student reviews posted on the Hennepin Theatre Trust website and SpotLight’s Critical Review reviewer site

What participants are saying:

“I LOVE Critical Review so much! Going to see all of those plays was so amazing. I really appreciate what the program has done for me.”
-Diamond Billinger, Critical Review student

Fiddler on the Roof is one of the best performances I have seen this year, tied with Wicked and Spring Awakening. There is no one better than Chaim Topol to tell the classic story of family hardship and change.”
-Sara Sommers,  Critical Review student

“I have loved Rent ever since I saw the movie. Being able to see the stage version with two of the original cast members was beyond amazing. It was so much fun and definitely an experience I’ll always remember.”
-Alicia Battle, Critical Review student

Contact Us

For more information about Spotlight’s Critical Review Program please contact:

Pete Tedrow, Education Coordinator