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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
FINDING NEVERLAND
at Lunt-Fontanne Theater

FLUFF IT UP
By MATT WINDMAN

  (L to R) Tyley Ross, Chris Dwan, Kelsey Grammer, Teal Wicks and Matthew Morrison/ Ph: Carol Rosegg

I would love to see the musical Finding Neverland – not the crass, unbearably sentimental one that’s now playing on Broadway, but rather the one that got discarded along the way.

When it was first announced that film producer Harvey Weinstein was developing a musical adaptation of the 2004 film (which he produced at Miramax), the project had an entirely different creative team, including director-choreographer Rob Ashford (the recent Broadway revivals of Promises, Promises and How to Succeed), songwriters Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (Grey Gardens, Far from Heaven), and book writer Allan Knee (who wrote the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, which the film was based on). It premiered abroad in 2012 in Leicester, with Julian Ovenden (Death Takes a Holiday). 

Upon receiving mixed reviews in Leicester, Weinstein took the drastic step of starting from scratch and bringing in an entirely new team, including director Diane Paulus (the Broadway revivals of Hair, Pippin, and Porgy and Bess), pop singer-songwriter Gary Barlow (who was aided on the lyrics by Eliot Kennedy) and playwright James Graham. Taking into consideration the beauty and dramatic power of the Grey Gardens score and Ashford’s strong eye for staging, I find it hard to believe that the production was so flawed that it needed a total rehaul. It’s worth noting that Grey Gardens underwent significant changes from Off-Broadway to Broadway that considerably strengthened the piece.

When the new Finding Neverland premiered last summer at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, where Paulus is artistic director, the cast included Jeremy Jordan (Smash, Newsies) as Peter Pan author/creator J.M. Barrie, Michael McGrath (Spamalot, Nice Work If You Can Get It) as theatrical producer Charles Frohman, Laura Michelle Kelly (Mary Poppins) as Barrie’s celibate love interest Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and Carolee Carmello (Parade) as Davies’ socialite mother.

The reviews from Cambridge were once again mixed, but the audience response was favorable, and this version was already set to come to Broadway. Weinstein even managed to get the show highlighted on the 2014 Tony Awards, with Jennifer Hudson performing a selection from the score. But not one to stop tinkering with his toy, Jordan was replaced by Glee star Matthew Morrison, and McGrath (currently in On the Twentieth Century) was replaced by no less than Kelsey Grammer.

The musical, playing at Broadway’s considerably large Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, begins with a terrific moment of special-effects wizardry I’ve never seen in any production of the 1954 musical Peter Pan, with Tinker Bell flying throughout the audience. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.

The original film was a prestige period picture with fine performances from Johnny Deep, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman. It netted several Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Weinstein, apparently under the impression that Broadway musicals must be brash and appeal to the lowest common denominator, has turned what was a smart story into a broadly played piece of family-friendly fluff. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with changing the property’s tone (after all, don’t we complain when adaptations are not rethought for the stage?), it is inferior to the film in every conceivable way.

Although Graham’s book follows the screenplay pretty faithfully, the sentimentality is played up to a nauseating extent while adding countless displays of cheap, juvenile humor. (The shout-out to the television sitcom Cheers, delivered by Grammer, was especially shameless.) Barlow and Kennedy’s songs sound like the work of writers who have never written for the theater before, with no sense of character development. Their simplistic pop flavor is at odds with turn-of-the-century setting. They are generally generic in tone and often forcefully upbeat, as if they believed that the audience might nod off otherwise. Mia Michaels’ jarringly stylized choreography is derived from the same “wow them or lose them” mentality.  

Finding Neverland is certainly a letdown for those who have cheered Paulus’ productions in recent years. Might this be a sign that she is better at working on revivals than new work (not unlike Bartlett Sher)? Perhaps, but to give her the benefit of the doubt, one can’t help but suspect that it was Weinstein rather than Paulus who was primarily responsible for shaping Finding Neverland.

Morrison (who did great work onstage in Hairspray, The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific before Glee came to call) gives a surprisingly empty and uninteresting performance as Barrie, offering none of the eccentricity or playfulness that Depp brought to the character. Barrie, a frustrated playwright, is really a role for a character actor, not a heartthrob/straight man. Grammer, who has a more than acceptable singing voice and was fine in the 2010 revival of La Cage aux Folles, registers the strongest and sincerest impression of anyone. Kelly and Carmello engage in overplayed soap opera theatrics, especially as Kelly’s character succumbs to illness.

In an ideal world, the two versions of Finding Neverland would be presented in repertory, and audience members could decide which one they prefer. Weinstein might be surprised by the results. Then again, based on the show’s high grosses in recent weeks, maybe not. 

 


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