Lunt-Fontanne Theater, New York, NY; April 22, 2015
Although at times it feels like it, I don’t only attend dance performances. Last week I had the pleasure of attending Finding Neverland, a new Broadway musical based on the 2004 film.
This is a show that can appeal to anyone, and it had the very live and eclectic audience in love with it from the first minutes. It’s got wit, sparkle, creativity, wonderful voices, an interesting story, humor, stars, dance, beautiful sets and scenic design, and, most significantly, an exposed heart. It’s a show that demands to be hugged.
That being said, there is cause for some measure of disappointment. The characters, attractive as they may be, are essentially one-dimensional, and the play on emotions is transparent and predictable. The dancing – though it’s well choreographed – can’t compare to (and shouldn’t be compared with) the glorious An American in Paris and On the Town. The songs don’t reach the heights they aspire to, and I found Act II to be more sappy than necessary.
Finding Neverland is the story behind the real-life inspiration for Scottish writer and playwright Sir James M. Barrie’s most successful play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Never Grew Up, and the power of imagination that brought it to life. Within this framework are two dominant and intertwined themes: Barrie’s dissatisfaction with his professional and personal life, and his relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (his marriage to wife Mary is depicted as icy, hardly surprising given it was never consummated) and her four sons. The musical takes some liberties with the ‘facts’, but this license isn’t abused. And it must be emphasized that this is an entertainment, not a psychological study. We don’t know why Barrie rebels against formality and things-as-they-should-be, or why he seemed fixated with children’s play. It doesn’t matter.
After achieving a measure of success in London, Barrie most recent play is poorly received. Nevertheless, his producer, Charles Frohman, a pompous and out-sized American, urges him to create another play in the mold of his prior successes. When the lights dim, the audience is teased by a darting, flickering glow of light (Tinkerbelle, as a warm-up act).
As the play begins, we see Barrie, played by Matthew Morrison, sitting on a park bench attempting to write the new play, but his mind wanders as he sees some boys (Llewelyn Davies’ sons) playing, and he envisions a somewhat androgynous boy costumed like, well, Peter Pan, whirring around him in a blur of fairy dust. If this were a ballet, Barrie would be your stereotypical ‘dreamer/poet’.
When he revisits the park and sees the boys playing ‘pirates’,Barrie meets the boys’ widowed mother, played by the mellifluous and consistently delightful Laura Michelle Kelly. The scene also is the setting for one of the first act’s strongest songs, “Believe.” Subsequently, and without first consulting his wife (portrayed by Tal Wicks as part shrew and part harpie), Barrie invites Sylvia and her boys to Mary’s ‘formal’ dinner party. The setting transitions into a hilarious romp, incorporating another strong song (“We Own The Night”), in which Barrie imagines all the attendees frozen in place except him, Sylvia, and the boys, and comic mayhem ensues
The relationship between Barrie and Sylvia continues and deepens, and Barrie becomes the boys’ surrogate father. But the relationship is considered scandalous by proper society. Nevertheless, Barrie, a boy at heart, and the children relish it.The sequence that follows is the heart of the story, as Barrie scraps his ‘new’ play and develops one based on his imagination, fueled by his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys, and particularly the somewhat introverted and sensitive Peter. It is also the highpoint of the musical, as three naysayers – Frohman, Mary, and Sylvia’ mother Mrs. Du Maurier (Carolee Carmello) – attempt to suppress Barrie’s imagination, but he conjures a larger than life ‘Captain James Hook’, to insulate and propel him to continue to dream. The three consecutive musical numbers, “Circus of Your Mind,” “Live by the Hook,” and “Stronger” are gloriously theatrical and brilliantly staged, and leave the audience cheering as Act I ends.
Act II, however, is somewhat ponderous, weighed down by Sylvia’s illness and death, and several undistinguished songs – except for a strong duet between Barrie and Sylvia (“What You Mean to Me”). Frohman reluctantly agrees to produce the play, and it becomes a success. The finale, where the stars of Barrie’s new play, on its opening night, travel to Sylvia’s home (and deathbed) to reenact excerpts from it, leaves the audience dewy-eyed.
Morrison is a wonderful, if somewhat wooden, James Barrie, with a surprisingly (if you’ve only known him from Glee) rich voice, and Kelly, who has appeared in many West End and Broadway productions, a winsome Sylvia. But the show’s centerpiece, if not its soul, is Kelsey Grammar, who owns the stage whenever he’s on it, and brings it to life. The characters he plays, Frohman and the Captain Hook of Barrie’s imagination, are cartoonish, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s intentionally done to provide some needed texture to the musical. In reality, however, Frohman was a distinguished producer on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a passenger on the Lusitania when it was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat, and died after reportedly giving up his lifejacket, and place in a lifeboat, to a sleeping infant. His last words were a paraphrase from Peter Pan. Memorial services were held for him by the star actors he promoted in cities across the U.S., and at both St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.
Grammar’s Frohman is superficially stuffy and gruff but good-hearted – sort of a cross between Phineas T. Bluster (for non-baby boomers, a character from the television program, Howdy Doody), Santa Claus, Frazier Crane, and a hot-air balloon. His Captain Hook is over the top with a touch of class – or subtle with an anvil, depending your point of view. Regardless, Grammar’s performance is theatrical magic.
The choreography, by Mia Michaels doesn’t break new ground, or bring highbrow dance to Broadway, but it tells the story in an essential way, since the libretto, by James Graham, while liberally sprinkled with in-jokes, clever wordplay, and sight-gags, is in other respects relatively flat. The opening number, “All of London Is Here Tonight,” is a prime example. It’s not easy making characters who are supposed to be stuffy move in a way that enhances their prim and proper starchiness, but that doesn’t make them look grotesque. Michaels comes close to overstepping, but doesn’t. And “Believe,” the rapturous number in Act I, is beautifully choreographed. Where things go somewhat awry is when there’s less of a crowd. Children pretending to fly, with arms outstretched like airplanes, can get tiresome quickly.
Director Dianne Paulus moves things along at a fairly rapid clip. Her staging of “The Dinner Party”/”We Own the Night” converts what might be a dull scene into a riotous one, and “Circus of Your Mind” is staged brilliantly – Barrie’s three nemeses converging seriatim and ultimately converging on his mind like a three-ring doomsday circus. And the closing image – Wendy (an engaging Emma Pfaeffle) lighting a center stage ‘air tornado’ with the edge of Barrie’s script, which instantly bursts into flying bits of gold dust as Peter Pan rises from the floor and flies off to Neverland (echoing the image at the play’s beginning) – is breathtaking.
However, “Finding Neverland” is a very introspective musical. It’s about feelings. And that’s fine – certainly Barrie’s real-life story and childlike imagination lend themselves to a play that feels, deeply. But a Broadway musical requires something more upbeat – something that the music and lyrics, by Gary Barlow and Eliott Kennedy, do not provide. The songs aren’t bad – but they’re not exceptional either – although anything sung by Ms. Kelly sounded better than it was. And the play’s ‘anthem’, “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” instead of being upbeat and hopeful, is closer to a dirge.
Yet, Finding Neverland is overwhelmingly accessible and ultimately joyous. Despite my whining, I found myself enjoying it a great deal, and, like the audience reaction at the opening of the original Barrie play, was moved by the enthusiasm of the younger viewers.
So when you see Finding Neverland, and you should, bring children. They’ll love it. And despite its flaws, you’ll find yourself figuratively hugging the show and its characters for making you feel sad and good at the same time. And it’ll hug you back.