Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 15, 2015
Finding Neverland Book by James Graham. Music & lyrics by Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy. Based on the Miramax Motion Picture written by David Magee and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee. Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreography by Mia Michaels. Music supervision and dance and incidental music arrangements by David Chase. Orchestrations by Simon Hale. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Suttirat Anne Larlarb. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Jonathan Deans. Projection design by Jon Driscoll. Hair & make up design by Richard Mawbey. Illusions by Paul Kieve. Air Sculptor Daniel Wurtzel. Flying effects by ZFX, Inc. Flying effects by Production Resource Group. Cast: Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer, with Laura Michelle Kelly, Carolee Carmello, Teal Wicks, Alex Dreier, Aidan Gemme, Jackson Demott Hill, Noah Hinsdale, Sawyer NUnes, Christopher Paul Richards, Hayden Signoretti, and Courtney Balan, Dana Costello, Colin Cunliffe, Rory Donovan, Chris Dwan, Kevin Kern, Jason Lamon, Melanie Moore, Mary Page Nance, Fred Odgaard, Emma Pfaeffle, Jonathan Ritter, Tyley Ross, Julius Anthony Rubio, Paul Slade Smith, Ron Todorowski, Jaime Verazin, Jessica Vosk.
This is never a plus to begin with, but it's an even bigger problem when your show is aimed at families and trying to reveal the background of the most buoyant tween of the last 150 years or so of English-language literature. The brainchild of producer Harvey Weinstein, who also produced the 2004 film on which it's based (along with a play by Allan Knee), Finding Neverland attempts to tell the story of the creation of the 1904 play Peter Pan from the perspective of its author, J.M. Barrie, who, like his title character, just wanted to stay a boy. But lacking humanity, effervescence, or even just the indomitable sense of purpose that characterized the movie, it's stuck in the mud at best, and drowning in flop sweat at the worst.
I could certainly feel the drops hit my face from the very first words sung by Barrie (Matthew Morrison), as he sits in Kensington Gardens a year after Peter Pan's triumph, pondering what had brought him to that point: "There's a moment you've been waiting all your life for / When you find the very reason you're alive for / And it happens when you seem to least expect it / All at once you come alive and feel connected." This throbbingly generic, indifferently rhymed sentiment comes courtesy of pop songwriters Gary Barlow and Elliot Kennedy, who also composed the music, and though I'd love to say things improve later, it's par for the course here in terms of content and quality.
There's nothing inherently wrong with wholesale borrowing of such tried-and-tested themes, but Graham, Barlow, and Kennedy expand on them in fresh ways in neither scene nor song, which permanently lodges the first act somewhere stultifying and turgid. If the community-establishing number titled "All of London Is Here Tonight" isn't enough, there's also the playful-pirate song for the Llewelyn Davies boys ("The Pirates of Kensington"), the pull-up-by-your-bootstraps rouser "Believe" ("It's so frustrating / When no one else sees / Everything you see / So for now it is just an illusion, confusion"), the chaotic dinner-table game "We Own the Night," and of course, the take-no-prisoners curtain-dropper anthem "Stronger," complete with a swarthy chorus climbing rope rigging, fog machines set to 11, and an encouraging Captain Hook (Grammer again) guiding Barrie to new heights of achievement.
It's all straight out of the Bland Musical Theatre Handbook, without the coordinating care and attention to nuance that can make unadventurous efforts of this sort sparkle in their own limited way. (See the just-opened It Shoulda Been You for a vastly superior demonstration of this principle.) As she's shown in her previous New York revival efforts (Hair, Porgy and Bess, Pippin), director Diane Paulus excels more at bigger-picture concepts than fine detail work, and thus can't provide the firm guiding hand the writers need in this situation. The sets (by Scott Pask) charmingly evoke Edwardian stagecraft in their colorful, perspective-skewing two-dimensionality (though they're augmented by too-heavy projections from John Driscoll), and the costumes (Suttirat Anne Larlarb) and lights (Kenneth Posner) match them note for note, but they're the equivalent of a mannequin wearing a grand ball gown: It may look pretty, but it ain't going anywhere.
The treacle cascades down rich and thick in Act II when Barrie dives headfirst into his play, and must put it on while Sylvia is dying and he's bickering endlessly with her overprotective mother (Carolee Carmello, eye-poppingly overcast). If the writers make conspicuously copious use here of far better scenes from Peter Pan (including clapping to save Tinkerbell), and openly tug the heartstrings when the movie kept a discreet distance, the post-intermission festivities are a marked improvement over what comes before, even if they still fall short of "good." And, from the Credit Where It's Due Department, Sylvia's farewell, the final fusing of reality and fantasy, is powerfully renderedif, it must be noted, lifted directly from the film. And rest assured, there's still one clunker of a song here: "Play," for the rehearsals of a too-grown-up troupe of actors. "Remember and you will see / The world is so mysterious and wild / When you start to see it through the eyes / Of a child," a lyric runs. Oy.
No one can make that kind of thing work. But Kelly (Fiddler on the Roof, Mary Poppins) comes closest, crafting a lovely if blank personality for Sylvia, and wielding a warm, light soprano that gets her to the border of showstopper territory in the determined "All That Matters." Morrison's portrayal is cooing and condescending, with no shading evident, but his innate likability serves him well, and almost compensates for a natural lack of playfulness that would seem to be ideal for Barrie.
Grammer's spin on Frohman is full-on stuffed-shirt bluster and blister, but it's acceptable for the sketchily written character. (Really, though, did the writers need to give him a Cheers joke?) Wicks and Carmello are saddled with particularly one-note characters, but make the most of them. And the rotating cadre of actors playing Sylvia's children reveals some highly capable talents; Aidan Gemme, who played Peter, Barrie's foremost inspiration, at the performance I attended, turned in an especially satisfying portrayal tinged with rambunctiousness and regret.
But theatregoers much older than those barely-out-of-single-digits actors, and certainly any with a finely tuned ear, won't find much of value in Finding Neverland, which tells a story we don't need to hear in ways we don't need (and probably don't want) to hear it. Though Broadway would, on some level, be better if more producers believed in their projects as much as he clearly does this one, it's too bad that his headline-making antics (firing some initial members of the creative team and an earlier press representative, publicly baiting the Post's Michael Riedel, tut-tutting Ben Brantley before the performance the Times critic attended in the show's tryout run at ART in Massachusetts), couldn't have resulted in at least a shred of worthwhile drama onstage.