You can add songs to pretty much anything and call it a musical, but whether a property truly needs to be sung is another matter. From the gung-ho first-act finale through the more imaginative second act of “Finding Neverland,” helmer/choreographer Rob Ashford wields Scott Frankel’s music to largely dynamic effect. But although the fluidity of his strikingly handsome production papers over cracks, the show needs a major dramaturgical overhaul of the first act (at least) to make a convincing case for turning the title into a tuner.
The second act’s leaps into the world of fantasy, and its abandonment of realistic storytelling, points to the governing problem. The book is too doggedly faithful to its real-life characters.
As in the movie toplined by Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, the story revolves around actual people, a married J.M. Barrie (Julian Ovenden) and widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Rosalie Craig), plus her four children who inspire Barrie to write his greatest creation: “Peter Pan.” Fact-based characters rarely arrive with dramatic shape, and by sticking so stubbornly to their slow, unsurprising trajectory, Allan Knee’s book makes almost the entire first hour feel dutiful.
All sorts of worlds are patiently described: Barrie’s stalled theatrical life, his troubled marriage, his literary chums who form a cricket team, as well as Sylvia’s family life. All these are illustrated through song, but that, too, is a problem, since several of the numbers offer exposition rather than excitement.
Without momentum, nothing moves forward. And although Frankel’s beautifully orchestrated music consciously evokes the turn of the 19th century, writing Gilbert & Sullivan patter-song pastiche, or a generic-sounding music-hall number for Barrie’s wife (Clare Foster), robs several songs of an original voice.
When Frankel breaks free, as in “Do I Know You,” sung by Sylvia’s angry son Peter (an eerily accomplished 12-year-old Harry Polden at the perf reviewed), the temperature lifts. Yet the song’s audible shape and unexpected rhythmic vigor point to the rambling nature of much of the rest of the score, with lyrics that seem to value rhyme over development.
With tension this low, it’s left to the two leads to bring the production to musical life, which they do. With the most natural and thrillingly relaxed tenor voice on the British stage, Ovenden makes the songs glow. He’s matched by Rosalie Craig in a breakout performance.
Their roles are so underwritten that their romance is inevitable, but calm Craig never anticipates or indicates she will capitulate. And her character-rich voice has a very high break that makes her climactic phrases genuinely exciting.
The oddest thing about the show, however, is that neither of these Rolls-Royce vocal talents is given a solid solo number. When they do get their moments, as in Craig’s rhapsodically sung “The Change of the Seasons” or their duet, “In the Blink of an Eye,” both numbers, as their generalized titles indicate, are diminished by a lurch into lyric cliches.
Armed with a serious budget (the show is quoted as costing $11.2 million), the design team pulls off the coup of making their effort look easy. Costume designer Paul Wills’ work is so in tune with the production and the characters that everyone seems as if they’re wearing not costumes, but real clothes.
At its simplest, Pask’s set functions as a series of surfaces for projections (by Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington) that conjure everything from London parks to the waves surrounding a pirate ship. But Pask’s elegant and varied rooms, locations and vistas have a rare solidity for something so versatile.
Things finally take off with the pirate plot. Barrie creates Capt. Hook out of his archenemy, the critic Maximillian Blunt (Oliver Boot), and at the end of act one, the author’s imagination takes him and Hook onto a giant pirate ship that looms out of the back wall. Ashford, lighting designer Neil Austin and the music department under David Charles Abell highlight the galloping number “Set Sail,” and everything leaps into a different league thereafter.
The second-act tussles between Barrie and the amusingly ungovernable Hook lead to the buoyantly staged “The Pirate Inside,” which in turn energizes both Barrie and the narrative, which moves though Barrie’s success with Peter Pan to a real-life tragedy the show seems initially scared to address.
In the show’s bold, metaphorical dramatic climax — and on a few other occasions — music maximizes the tension and its vivid release, but these qualities are absent for much of the evening. In his tyro stage-tuner outing, producer Harvey Weinstein has been very hands-on. No theater has yet been signed for the predicted West End (and Broadway) transfer; on the evidence of this tryout, the time for development is far from over.