The company of Finding Neverland.
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
For over 100 years now, J.M. Barrie’s tale of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” (i.e. Peter Pan) has sparked touched the imaginations and hearts of people around the globe. Similarly, Barrie’s tale has inspired artists, who have reimagined and refashioned it for different media and to different purposes. With the arrival of Finding Neverland at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre last night, New York theatergoers will discover that Barrie’s work (as well as his biography) have gone through yet another transformation. Sadly, this pandering new tuner lacks any of the magic that has made its source material so enduring.
With a book by James Graham, which is based on the movie of the same name, Finding Neverland relates how Barrie (played by Matthew Morrison) came to write Peter Pan. It presents Barrie as he’s facing a slump in his playwriting career and at a crossroads in a marriage to a woman with whom he is temperamentally at odds. One day, while Barrie is in the park, he encounters a widow, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly), and her four sons.
The boys’ playfulness and vivacious game-playing captures Barrie’s mind and heart, and before long, he has become a boon companion to both the mother and her children. He’s also decided that his newest work for the stage will be for young people, filled with adventures akin to the ones that the Davies boys and Barrie themselves imagine.
Barrie’s behavior and plans shock not only London society at large, but also his chilly wife (Teal Wicks) and his producer, American Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer). At the same time, Barrie breathes a new sort of life into the Davies clan. Sylvia and he fall in love, and Barrie draws on of Sylvia’s children, Peter, out of the grief he feels over the death of his father.
Of course, there are reversals on the course of getting Barrie’s idea to the stage. Frohman’s company nearly revolts over having to do a kiddie play, and Sylvia begins to succumb to tuberculosis, but by the show’s end, there’s a generally happy--although bittersweet--resolution at hand. (Note to parents of very small children the little girl, perhaps five or six years old, sitting behind me at the press performance was initially confused by Sylvia’s illness and then, audibly distressed at its outcome.)
This straightforward story of a man rediscovering his inner child and simultaneously inspiring those around him to do the same has been told time and again, and in Finding Neverland theatergoers will find that book writer Madge has not embellished it in any way that makes it particularly fresh. For anyone familiar with Barrie’s biography, the liberties that are taken with his life to make the story neat amount to their own sort of fiction. For instance, Barrie did not set out to make Peter Pan a stage play. He wrote the story first in book form.
It might help if the show’s songs, from Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, contributed an semblence of magic to the proceedings, but the tunes, with titles like “We’re All Made of Stars” and “All That Matters” and “What You Mean to Me,” are mostly just generic pop anthems. There’s little sense of the Edwardian era period in them, and with the song “Believe,” audiences may feel like they’ve dropped in somewhere in the mid-1970s to revisit one of that decade’s feel-good bubblegum hits. With another, “Circus of Your Mind,” the writers seem to be channeling Jacques Brel.
Throughout the lyrics, riddled with near-rhymes that jar (“arrived” and “strive”) the ear, force the performers to simply belt out notes and emotion. In “Stronger,” Barrie announces “In the darkest place/There’s the faintest light/Gives me hope to face/The hardest fight/Pain delivers me.”
Director Diane Paulus, working in an environment from scenic designer Scott Pask that brings to mind a child’s theater, keeps the action awhirl, but her ability to create theatrical whimsy (demonstrated with her circus-inspired staging of Pippin) never emerges. Like the musical itself, her work has an aura of perfunctory professionalism to it.
Morrison, Kelly, Grammer, and Wicks in the central roles, along with Carolee Carmello, who plays Sylvia’s oh-so-proper mother, deliver sturdy performances, and with the exception of Grammer, who takes a Rex Harrison-like approach to the music half speaking, half singing, they deliver the music with gusto. Their work is never anything less than energetic, but it, like the show, lacks the delicacy that’s so necessary for creating enchantment.
---- Andy Propst
Finding Neverland plays at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (205 West 46th Street). For more information, visit: findingneverlandthemusical.com.