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.