Review by Michael Bracken
“Boys should never be made to go to bed; they wake up a day older.”
So says J.M. Barrie (Matthew Morrison) in Finding Neverland, the treacly on-stage recreation of the 2004 movie starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. It’s a hard point to argue. But it’s even harder to extract any meaning from it. And there you have the gist of the newly opened musical at the Lunt-Fontane Theatre.
Neverland dispenses aphorisms as if they were candy, which, in their sugary sweetness, they are. But most are less cryptic than Barrie’s observation on bedtime. The mantra “Believe” is repeated ad nauseam: believe in yourself; believe you can do anything; and, of course, believe in fairies and they will live.
The tale of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, with book by James Graham and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy, Finding Neverland starts strong thanks to the resounding voice of Matthew Morrison, who plays Barrie. It’s a delight to hear this Glee alumnus (with no lack of impressive theater credits) illuminate one of the show’s better songs, “If the World Turned Upside Down,” with thrilling tone and timbre.
The show goes down a notch when it segues to an opening night party for Barrie’s latest play, with the entire company singing “All of London Is Here Tonight,” a pleasant enough but hardly exciting ditty. In addition to high society, the actors in the troupe that perform Barrie’s work are on hand, fawning over the playwright. There’s not more than one dimension in the lot of them. The men are affected fops and the women are hardly noticeable.
Barrie’s producer, Charles Frohman (a robust Kelsey Grammer) is there as well. Like so much else in the show, he’s a stereotype, but Grammer infuses enough personality into Frohman to turn him into a human, whose exaggerated theatricality is in character. He fares not quite so well later as a Captain Hook precursor.
It seems that Barrie, a respected and renowned playwright once original and engaging, has gotten into a rut. Everything he writes is just a retread of his earlier work. His muse has evidently flown the coop, although we all know a new one (or two or four) is soon to arrive.
Enter the Llewelyn-Davies clan, four scrappy young boys and their sweet, attractive mother, Sylvia (the sweet, attractive Laura Michelle Kelly). Make that three scrappy young boys – one brother, Peter, is in mourning for his recently deceased father and won’t join his brothers when they play pirates.
At any rate, the brothers invade the playwright’s quiet space in the middle of Kensington Garden (lushly imagined by set designer Scott Pask) as he sits on a bench seeking inspiration. For Barrie, it’s love at first sight, not with Sylvia (whom he does eventually kiss, once, later in the production) but with her progeny. The boundless energy of George, Jack, and Michael enchants him, Peter’s melancholy touches him. He becomes a regular with them at home and at the park.
But conventional society cannot abide such defection from its ranks. Between Barrie’s wife (Teal Wicks) and even more so Sylvia’s mother (Carolee Carmello), the happy makeshift family is torn asunder. Barrie is forbidden from seeing the boys he loves so much and their comely mother. Of course, things eventually work out – they believe, after all – but at a steep price.
Barlow & Kennedy’s score is fairly pedestrian, but, like the opening number, the closer is spirited and infectious. Yet it’s not the music that does Finding Netherland in; it’s the spoken word. Lyrics and dialogue are indistinguishable in their penchant for ardent sentimentality.
Finding Neverland illustrates the creation of just about every well-known element of Peter Pan – Captain Hook, the alligator, flying, Tinkerbelle – not very convincingly, but so what? This is a show built on emotion, not logic. It’s clearly meant to have family appeal, and it probably will attract its share of parents with kids. But even children might find its incessant preachifying wearisome and the adult struggles less than captivating.
Open-ended run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (205 WEST 46th STREET). www.FindingNeverlandTheMusical.com 2 hours 30 minutes.
*Photos: Carol Rosegg