Broadway Review: ‘Finding Neverland’

Finding Neverland review Broadway
Carole Rosegg

There’s not enough flying in “Finding Neverland” — metaphorical flying, that is, those giddy flights of wit and imagination that make us believe, if not in fairies, then at least that the American musical is still alive and well. Despite the technical marvels that director Diane Paulus brings to producer Harvey Weinstein’s beloved obsession, this ambitious version of the 2004 Miramax movie (itself based on a play by Alan Knee) remains stubbornly earthbound. The lead in its feet has a lot to do with the ponderous lyrics, but at the heart of the matter, this material doesn’t cry out to be a musical.

Is someone really marketing this show to children? There were a lot of little ones (along with all the grown-up kids) in attendance at a late preview, no doubt hoping to see Peter Pan and the Lost Boys in the magical Neverland that the sensitive Edwardian playwright James M. Barrie (Matthew Morrison) created in 1904 to escape from his own stultifying society. But aside from soaring appearances at the beginning and end of the show by the airborne Peter Pan (Melanie Moore), the closest we get to that much-loved play is a rip-roaring scene with those rowdy Neverland buccaneers raising the rigging on their pirate ship and Kelsey Grammer enthusiastically transforming himself into Captain Hook (in “Live by the Hook”).

What we’ve basically got here is a gloomy story about a moody Scottish playwright who desperately needs to come up with the creative inspiration for his next play and who finds it when he is taken into the family bosom of a nice lady who then ups and dies on him. Musicals aren’t put off by a little thing like death, so it takes more than that to sink a show, and the creatives on this one are happy to oblige.

We meet the playwright at an awkward moment in his life, at the opening-night party for “The Wedding Guest,” a West End play that is clearly a flop. Barrie’s colorful American producer, Charles M. Frohman (Grammer, totally in his element), is presiding over this lavish soiree, the likes of which you’ve never seen, with giddy guests in gaudy costumes hopping up and down like Mexican jumping beans. (The very strange choreography is by Mia Michaels, who won three Emmys for her work on “So You Think You Can Dance,” but doesn’t come up with any winners here.)

Barrie himself has no illusions. (“Just listen to those cheers / Even though I haven’t had / a new idea in years.”) And then he drops in a few lines from what seems to be his signature song, “If the World Turned Upside Down,” which he sang in the prologue. The lyrics (co-written, as was the music, by Gary Barlow of “Take That” and Eliot Kennedy) are well-nigh unfathomable, but the meaning seems to be that the burnt-out playwright is desperate for a miracle that would restore his youthful mental vigor and provide him with some flash of creative inspiration.

Morrison (“Glee”) is extremely well cast as the hypersensitive Scottish playwright, investing him with a stirring voice and a tender heart. But what can he do for a repressed character whose cerebral solo numbers are internalized thoughts? There’s even a song to this effect (“Circus of Your Mind”), sung by the company to shake him out of his self-absorption.

Barrie finally finds this inspiration (not that he’s given a song to express his epiphany) in Kensington Gardens, where he meets four “lost” boys who are the brood of the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. British actress Laura Michelle Kelly is perfectly lovely in this sentimentalized role — and pallid enough to indicate that this delicate lady is not long for this world. Talking to her and watching the boys (except for Peter, who is grieving for his father) hurl themselves into “The Pirates of Kensington” lifts Barrie’s depression right off his shoulders. Doesn’t really do much for us, though, since the over-drilled child actors are too self-aware to suggest the childhood innocence that so captivates and inspires Barrie.

Even if you haven’t seen the movie with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, the book by James Graham (a known entity in London, but new to us) is all narrative, narrative, narrative, so it’s pretty clear where this storyline is headed: Barrie will become a fixture in the Davies household. The boys will inspire him to write “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” which he will dedicate to young Peter, who will get over his grieving.

And then the kids’ mother — she who spoke the line, “I think to have faith is to have wings” — will die at the end, not entirely because of that line.

In a way, the whole show seems to be holding its breath for this death scene, which Paulus (“Pippin”) has staged with imaginative flair. Scenic designer Scott Pask, lighting designer Kenneth Posner, sound man Jonathan Deans, projectionist Jon Driscoll and those people who worked on things like “illusions” and “air sculpture” and “flying effects” — plus whoever came up with the idea of sprinkling that fairy dust all over the place — come through in this flashy finale and send the audience out blissfully dazed.

It’s just too bad that this magic is all in the service of transporting Sylvia Llewelyn Davies off to her death — er, that is, to Neverland. Try explaining that one to the kids.

finding-neverland-review-broadway

Broadway Review: 'Finding Neverland'

Lunt-Fontanne Theater; 1,505 seats; $147 top. Opened April 15, 2015. Reviewed April 10. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production

A Harvey Weinstein, Weinstein Live Entertainment, the Madison Square Garden Company, Len Blavatnik, Ron Burkle, Radenko Milakovic and Bryan Cranston presentation, in association with Jason Blum, Broadway Across America, Stephen Bronfman, Rodgin Cohen, Michael Cohl, Jean Doumanian, Chad Dubea, Rick Gerson, Jeremiah J. Harris, Sheik Mohammed Y. El Khereiji, Terry Allen Kramer, Howard Milstein, Nederlander Presentations, Dalip Pathak, Marvin Peart, Steve Rattner, Jimmy Sommers, Peter Stavola and the American Repertory Theater, of a musical in two acts, with book by James Graham, music & lyrics by Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy, based on the Miramax film written by David Magee and the play "The Man Who Was Peter Pan" by Allan Knee.

Creative

Directed by Diane Paulus. Choreographed by Mia Michaels. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Suttirat Anne Larlarb; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Jonathan Deans; projections, Jon Driscoll; hair & makeup, Richard Mawbey; illusions, Paul Kieve; air sculptor, Daniel Wurtzel; flying effects, ZFX, Production Research Group; orchestrations, Simon Hale; music supervision & incidental music arrangements, David Chase; music director, Mary-Mitchell Campbell; production stage manager, C. Randall White.

Cast

Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer, Laura Michelle Kelly, Carolee Carmello, Teal Wicks, Melanie Moore.

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  1. Nick Moore says:

    Wasn’t he Scottish? Hence Matthew Morrison’s suspect accent.

  2. Laur says:

    Saw this play twice and I find it to be so heartwarming and inspiring. I have seen so many different broadway shows and this is by far my favorite. Dont listen to the variety review because it is simply amazing even I want to see it for a third time!

  3. Jen says:

    If you are going to review then at least get the nationality of the lead role correct. JM Barrie hailed from Scotland, not England.

    On another note, whilst everyone is entitled to their opinion, this review along with many others is just ludicrous. Neverland is a heartwarming, uplifting and emotional journey. LMK is amazing as Sylvia with MM also giving a great performance as Mr Barrie. This as well as the likes of Teal Wicks (Wicked), Carolee Carmello (Mamma Mia) and Anthony Warlow give the show real credibility.

    My advice, go see the show for yourself and look past the cynical eyes of the critics for a truly wonderful show xx

  4. Jason says:

    I didn’t see the same show reviewed here. The imaginative sets were spectacular and very basic in their mechanics. Frohman laments to Barrie that the water in the proposed new play would be a big expense, and the actual production made a few wonderful examples of showing water without a drop of the real stuff. And that for me is Broadway, and the spirit of this particular show. The numbers were rousing and the audience was moved. The death is the weakest part, in fact, it would have been better to imagine a better way for that to be told but otherwise a true show to catch for your money on the great white way this season.

  5. elise kaplan says:

    5-12 – Saw this show Sunday for Mother’s day with 2 children, 3 20 year olds, 4 50-60 year olds and my mother. Almost didn’t buy the tickets due to the critics reviews but it was the only show we thought would work for all generations. Well, so glad I listened to the audience reviews. Everyone LOVED the show. Can’t imagine how it didn’t get nominated for best staging/scenery. It was true Broadway – fast paced, funny and an amazing production. Highly recommend if you enjoy a full lavish Broadway musical

  6. Londa gardner says:

    J.M. Barrie was Scottish, not English…

  7. gr says:

    I saw the show last Saturday and cannot wait to see it again! I LOVED it! It is everything I expect to feel in a broadway production. The score, set design, choreography, talent/acting, and storyline was magnificent! I am not sure you are reviewing the same show. I will tell you that everyone around me was thrilled with it! I laughed, cried and felt something wonderful! Go see it!

  8. Cathy Viviano says:

    I haven’t seen the play in person, but I like watching the play on Youtube. It’s as close as I can get to the play re: Finding Neverland 2015

  9. “Is someone really marketing this show to children?” Harvey is, even though it’s a serious dramatic show, even though they are misleading parents into bringing kids to what they think is a lighthearted romp about Pan, and – most egregiously – even though the false marketing is leading to the worst behaved audience in years.

  10. SNMariglia says:

    I saw it last Saturday and immediately wanted to return to see it again. It was fantastic. The whole cast was outstanding and Morrison (who I was unfamiliar with) particularly shone.

  11. Diane Mesanko says:

    I saw the play Sat, night with my husband and we both LOVED it! Shocked by these in my opinion irresponsible reviews. You hurt the show but you also hurt the theater going public.

    • ARomanHoliday says:

      I haven’t seen this show yet, but I must admit that I find these reviews so far off-base lately. I saw an American in Paris last week, and as much as I loved the movie, and dance as a whole, found the show subpar on so many levels. There were people all around me sleeping! And then I read the glowing review a few days later on this site. I’m starting to think it’s best to start an audience generated site to post reviews to.

  12. I saw it last night and thought it was awesome! Excellent pacing and emotional heft. Sets and music were outstanding

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