In the wake of largely poor reviews for the pre-West End tryout in Leicester of the tuner adaptation of “Finding Neverland,” producer Harvey Weinstein has raced to implement changes. A mere 12 days after opening – and three days before closing – a new song has been added, events re-ordered and additions to character-detail made. But core structural problems persist. Although the changes have streamlined the still problematic first act, a fresh viewing uncovers the fact that the writing is merely illustrative. There’s neither sufficient dramatic action nor momentum.
Since the show was first reviewed Oct. 5, the key change is tonal. There has been a shift into more literal storytelling. That much is evident from the new opening number (originally used later in the first act) which methodically relates the tale of James M. Barrie’s flop show before writing “Peter Pan.” This number replaces a more adventurous comic nightmare of Barrie’s death at the hands of pirates who slaughtered him for having written a turkey. Though the new opener is clearer, it’s also generic and, unlike the original opening, unsurprising.
The other addition is a new song for Barrie, “Suddenly.” Sung with exciting ardour by Julian Ovenden, it tells of how he suddenly sees the world through the eyes of children. It ignites a spark and eventually leads to Barrie writing “Peter Pan,” but the change is in the character’s head, not on stage. No matter how beautifully she sings it, there’s an equal lack of development when the number is reprised by Rosalie Craig as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies.
Because the story is too wedded to the facts of Barrie and Davies’ real-life romance, their courtship feels long-winded and uneventful, not least because it’s presented with them standing at either side of the Scott Pask’s handsome set reciting letters to one another. Without the drama of interaction, you appreciate passionate singing but are mostly left unengaged.
In an attempt to engage audiences more fully, moments of direct address for Barrie (Ovenden) and others have been added. Hence the ingratiating gags including a would-be jocular exchange about nobody wanting to watch dramas about upper-class people and domestic servants. Surely the material ought to work without tonally inconsistent “Downton Abbey” jokes?
Such things feel like an attempt to cover up the key missing element: tension. That lack results from the show’s failure to focus on a clear trajectory. The book wanders through a suspense-free romance, the story of the inspiration behind an incomparable children’s classic, not to mention an examination of how children and adults deal with death. By trying to tell too many stories and to be all things to all people, it loses its way.
Allied to that, because it wants to be a family show — hence its billing not as a “musical” but as a “musical comedy” — it’s clearly worried about being too dark. But with audiences young and old lapping up the extreme emotions of “War Horse,” that feels like a failure of nerve. Here, real pain and anchoring truth are too often absent. The writers should take note of the line they give Barrie: “Too easy, too sentimental.”
Not enough numbers capitalize on the potential of the music, often because of lyrics that lack momentum. In “He makes me smile,” Craig’s direct sincerity more than covers lines as prosaic as “I have features on my face above my chin/ That still can replace a frown with a grin.” And although the song set during the opening night of “Peter Pan” starts with Barrie in high anxiety and ends in triumph, the number simply goes through the motions and stops without a real climax.
It’s now even clearer that director Rob Ashford’s sumptuous production and the performances he elicits from the company are flattering the material. But there is serious structural work to do before London. In one scene, with nothing going the way he wants it, Barrie is heading towards despair: “It’ll take more than a gin or two to fix me.” The same could be said of the show itself.