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It had enough admirers to snag several Oscar nominations, including best picture, but I confess I found the 2004 movie Finding Neverland a decorous yawn, starring a somnambulant Johnny Depp opposite Kate Winslet in a role that under-utilized her talents. But the preciousness and mawkish emotional manipulation of the movie seem like the austere work of a Michael Haneke by comparison with this long-aborning stage musical adaptation. Bombastic and exhausting, the show confuses childishness with an affinity for the child inside, at times recalling Wicked in its busily assaultive hyperactivity, but without that show’s catchy songs or engaging central character dynamic.
Like Wicked, however, Finding Neverland might also be critic-proof, at least on the evidence of its stellar grosses during previews, and on the vocal response of an audience heavily populated by kids. And good luck to it, if only this family-friendly musical, a semi-fictionalized account of J.M. Barrie‘s creation of Peter Pan, didn’t work so strenuously for its meager ounce or two of charm.
A rare blemish on the track record of gifted director Diane Paulus — whose superb Broadway revivals of Hair, Porgy and Bess and Pippin all collected Tony Awards — the show does have a heart-stopping death scene that’s both moving and visually spectacular in its bewitching stagecraft and its elegant knitting together of imagery and theme. But the two hours-plus leading up to that moment, more often than not, are a chore.
The big story behind Finding Neverland, which is news to nobody who follows theater at this point, is its difficult birth under the midwifery of first-time lead producer Harvey Weinstein. Following a poorly received 2012 premiere in Leicester, England, cosmetic changes were made in a rush before the planned London run was eventually scrapped. Unwilling to abandon the property, Weinstein dismissed the entire creative team, hiring a new director, composers, writer and cast before a pre-Broadway tryout last year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where Paulus is artistic director. That production, which starred Jeremy Jordan as Barrie, was given a muted welcome by critics but embraced by audiences, becoming a commercial success.
It now reaches New York following much further tinkering, with Matthew Morrison returning to Broadway after years of Glee exile to play Barrie, and Kelsey Grammer recruited to dispense drolleries as the Scottish playwright’s American theatrical producer, Charles Frohman.
On the plus side, the expected patchwork signs of a Frankenstein’s monster are not apparent. The show is fairly much of a piece, even if there’s scant cohesion to the new score by Take That frontman Gary Barlow and Brit songwriter Eliot Kennedy, which weaves cloying platitudes into numbers that run from generic pop to bad music-hall pastiche. But while there are issues with the disharmonious performance styles and grating choreography by Mia Michaels of So You Think You Can Dance fame, the fundamental problem is the show’s lack of memorable songs that are in any way essential to the telling of this story.
The book by James Graham hews closely to the movie. Following a London flop that reveals him to be repeating himself to diminishing returns, James is under pressure from Frohman to pen a quick hit. Feeling the chill at home from his preening socialite wife Mary (Teal Wicks), he courts the muse in Kensington Gardens. His imagination is slowly unlocked by daily encounters there with four rambunctious boys still bruised by the loss of their father, and with their melancholy mother, the lovely Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly). Her despondent son Peter (Aidan Gemme), in particular, warms to the gentle friendship of James, who recognizes the spirit of a young writer in the boy.
The married man’s association with a widow causes talk, as does his obvious fondness for her sons. Sylvia’s haughty mother Mrs. du Maurier (Carolee Carmello) is vocal in her disapproval, as is Mary, who takes her husband’s frayed affections as her cue to leave. But James carries on undaunted. In his pirate games and fantastical make-believe adventures with the Llewelyn Davies lads, he finds the spark for a radical departure in his work, a play about a boy who flies and can never grew up. And while the character acquires his name from Peter, of course it’s James who has tapped into his eternal childhood.
Anyone who saw the movie will recall that while the play achieves immortality, the association that inspired it ends sadly. That means there’s a degree of misty-eyed poignancy in the concluding scenes and in the theme of turning to our imaginations for solace from life’s devastating blows. But arrival at that point comes with a feeling of being pummeled into submission.
At the core of the show are sensitive, naturalistic performances from Morrison and Kelly, two accomplished musical-theater actors who sketch their characters’ mutual yearnings and sorrows in delicate strokes, at times finding sincerity even in the most hackneyed lyrics. Grammer is stuck with a load of pandering, anachronistic jokes (a Cheers gag, really?), but he’s amusing, especially when Frohman morphs in James’ mind into the flamboyantly sinister Captain Hook. Carmello seems wasted as a matronly gargoyle, but she does get to soften in the touching final scenes. And while Gemme has some tender moments as Peter, the kids are too cute by half, but let’s go ahead and give them a pass.
What’s harder to swallow is the grotesque pantomime mugging of Londoners, domestic servants and Frohman’s resident acting company members throughout. Every entrance, exit and even the most inconsequential actions seem to be accompanied by some arduous bit of comic business — exaggerated grimaces, mad gesticulations, slapstick clowning — none of it funny. This starts in the god-awful first ensemble number, “All of London is Here Tonight,” in which Michaels has everybody doing some kind of grim Edwardian twerking. And it continues to the end, when the premiere of James’ play is accompanied by a matching number also meant to convey feverish excitement, “Something About This Night,” which sounds like a rejected World Cup anthem, or maybe an old Take That B-side.
The songs that aim for wild exuberance are irksome enough (“The Dinner Party” is a particular horror), but the unrelenting banality of the insipid ballads is almost worse. Instead of any sense of story through song, it’s as if Barlow and Kennedy have raided the Hallmark shelves and collected prepackaged sentiment — “If the World Turned Upside Down,” “Believe,” “All That Matters,” “What You Mean to Me,” “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” and — wince — “We’re All Made of Stars.” None of these songs has much meaning beyond the abstract, let alone any poetry or originality, so they take us no deeper inside the characters’ hearts. Perhaps the most embarrassing in its empty earnestness is the Act I closing number, “Stronger,” in which the otherwise neutered Morrison rips open his shirt (steady, girls, top buttons only) and releases his inner Christina Aguilera.
Even with the occasional soft whistle of Celtic pipes, nothing here evokes character or era, and nor does the score work as a contemporary commentary on a period piece like, say, Spring Awakening. It’s simply flavorless pap, and frequently derivative.
Paulus reaches for a “Defying Gravity” moment in her staging of “Live By the Hook,” folded into “Stronger” as pirates emerge from James’ imagination and hoist the ship’s rigging and sails from a misty deck. This provides some effective spectacle. But the psychodrama song that immediately precedes it, “Circus of Your Mind,” is pure punishment, its whirling cinematic tick-tock imagery coughing up every visual cliché for obsessive mental torment in the book. And while there’s nothing cheap about the production, there’s also little to seduce the eye in Scott Pask‘s garish storybook sets. Only Suttirat Anne Larlarb‘s handsome costumes bring a welcome touch of refinement.
Weinstein often gets a bad rap for being a hands-on producer, but for every instance of compromised creativity there are probably multiple others in which his aggressive interventions and sharp commercial instincts have rescued movies from oblivion. That may even end up being the case with this Herculean endeavor, and certainly, the producer’s tenacity in remaining committed to a problem-child project is admirable. But there’s nonetheless no convincing argument here that a Finding Neverland musical was ever an artistically valid idea.
Venue: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York
Cast: Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer, Laura Michelle Kelly, Carolee Carmello, Teal Wicks, Alex Dreier, Aidan Gemme, Jackson Demott Hill, Noah Hinsdale, Sawyer Nunes, Christopher Paul Richards, Hayden Signoretti, Courtney Balan, Dana Costello, Colin Cunliffe, Rory Donovan, Chris Dwan, Josh Lamon, Melanie Moore, Mary Page Nance, Emma Pfaeffle, Jonathan Ritter, Tyley Ross, Julius Anthony Rubio, Paul Slade Smith, Ron Todorowski, Jessica Vosk
Director: Diane Paulus
Music & lyrics: Gary Barlow, Eliot Kennedy
Book: James Graham, based on the Miramax Motion Picture written by David Magee, and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, by Allan Knee
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Suttirat Anne Larlarb
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Jonathan Deans
Projection designer: Jon Driscoll
Illusions: Paul Kieve
Music direction: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Orchestrations: Simon Hale
Music supervisor, dance & incidental music arranger: David Chase
Choreographer: Mia Michaels
Executive producers: Barry & Fran Weissler, Alecia Parker, Victoria Parker
Producer: Harvey Weinstein
Presented by Weinstein Live Entertainment, Madison Square Garden Company, Len Blavatnik, Ron Burkle, Radenko Milakovic, Bryan Cranston, Jason Blum, Broadway Across America, Stephen Bronfman, Rodgin Cohen, Michael Cohl, Jean Doumanian, Chad Dubea, Rick Gerson, Jeremiah J. Harris, Sh. Mohammed Y. El Khereiji, Terry Allen Kramer, Howard Milstein, Nederlander Presentations, Dalip Pathak, Marvin Pearl, Steve Rattner, Jimmy Sommers, Peter Stavola, American Repertory Theater
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