Sunday, October 4, 2015

Loud, Boisterous, and Lacking Imagination

Review: Finding Neverland

Matthew Morrison (center) and the cast of Finding Neverland.

At one point during Finding Neverland, the bombastic new musical currently playing at the Lunt-Fontaine Theatre, a secondary character turns to the audience and clearly mouths, "What the f***?" This is supposed to be a comical rejoinder to author J.M. Barrie's fantastical description of the fictional world of Neverland, but also represents the most logical reaction to the spectacle-driven nonsense being presented onstage. The production is so busy trying to impress that minor annoyances like a coherent narrative and a well written score are left by the wayside to make room for more pomp and circumstance, resulting in a musical that fails to coalesce into more than the sum of its disjointed parts.

Based on the 2004 film of the same name, Finding Neverland centers on the creation of one of the most enduring children's tales in all of Western literature, Peter Pan. At the musical's start playwright J.M. Barrie is a well-established fixture of the London theatre scene, yet while his shows are still popular the general consensus is that his best work is behind him. While Barrie struggles to find inspiration for a play he can actually be proud of writing, a chance meeting with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four rambunctuous boys reignites the imagination that has laid dormant inside Barrie for years. As the writer grows closer to Davies and her boys, he begins to shape the story that would become Peter Pan's adventures in Neverland, a play so different from London has ever seen that many doubt the show will work.

The understated charms of the film have been replaced here with the kind of pop-influenced histrionics that defined Broadway for a good deal of the 1990s, and the relatively slim narrative simply cannot support the added weight. It doesn't help that James Graham's book has  almost nothing to do with Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy's inoffensively generic songs, whose sole purpose appears to be providing a backdrop to the unneccesarily manic choreography by Emmy-winner Mia Michaels. None of the musical numbers succeed in illuminating character or conveying any emotion other than a vague desire to please, and even that is quickly drowned out by the overly applified orchestra that lords over the evening's proceedings. It's not that the songs are bad so much as they are unmemorable, to the point where the majority of them are forgotten by the time their final measure has ended.

There are glimmers of an interesting idea here and there in the book scenes, but Graham never adequately explores them. Several lines plant the seeds for the core concepts and story beats of Peter Pan, but Neverland never acknowledges this foreshadowing in anything other than a joking way. It would be much more satisfying to see Barrie actively latch on to these remarks about fairies, mermaids, and pirates to construct his story, but as written they seem like a bizarre coincidences rather than deliberately drawn parallels. The musical's first act finale centers around the idea that Barrie must embrace his dark side to give Peter Pan some much needed dramatic tension (and its famous villain, Captain Hook), but since Graham gives no indication Barrie has a dark side before or after this sequence it just seems like a manufactured plot point. The one thing Graham does spend an inordinate amount of time on is anarcharistic, tired meta jokes like having in-story actors ask "what's my motivation" or letting one of the overly precocious Davies boys ask if he'll receive any royalties for his contributions to Peter Pan.

It is frankly shocking that director Diane Paulus, who has helmed outstanding revivals of Hair, Porgy & Bess, and Pippin in recent years, allowed this kind of lowest common denomentator nonsense to take place under her watch. Paulus really should know better, and given her success at disguising the dramaturgical flaws of some of the previously mentioned musicals it is unnerving to see her put something so half-baked onstage. At the same time, Finding Neverland gives the impression that without Paulus at the helm it would be much, much worse, especially taking the aforementioned script issues into account. Without Paulus' bold, visually driven staging the show would be virtually unwatchable.

As is, the production is still difficult to stomach, as watching obviously talented individuals struggle to overcome material that does them no favors is never pleasant. Matthew Morrison gives a perfectly serviceable performance as J.M. Barrie, but is hampered by the lack of interesting material that actual explores the playwright's psyche. A consumate professional, Morrison hits all his marks, participates some rather physical staging and choreography, and sings with a pleasant baritone that does its best to inject emotion into the bland songs. At times Morrison appears to be marking things, although whether that's due to a disdain for the material or sheer exhaustion is difficult to tell (the character of Barrie rarely leaves the stage, so exhaustion is not out of the question).

Laura Michelle Kelly is suitably winsome as the widowed Sylvia, and her struggles with an unnamed illness (probably tuberculosis) bring Neverland as close to genuine drama as the show cares to get. Unfortunately, Barlow and Kennedy have chosen some rather dubious keys for Sylvia's big songs, and Kelly's generally lovely voice doesn't always agree with the notes it's being asked to sing. The role of Barrie's American producer Charles Frohman has since been taken over by Terrance Mann, but at the performance I saw Anthony Warlow did fine work in a role that is more plot device and joke delivery machine than actual character. Teal Wicks and Carolee Carmello are both wasted in underwritten secondary roles, and while the rest of the ensemble clearly has talent they spend so much time shamelessly mugging that they come across as rather obnoxious.

The physical production walks a fine line between ornate and garish, mostly sticking to the former. Suttirat Anne Larlarb's costumes are the most consistently appealing, utilizing a rich, jewel-toned color palate and just enough over the top details to establish a fantastical tone while maintaining a connection to the real world. Scott Pask's set mostly fades into the background, except for a strange clock motif which stands out because it isn't really referenced anywhere else in the design or the show's story.

Finding Neverland clearly wants to be everyone's new favorite musical, and judging by the audience reaction and the robust box office numbers it might even be succeeding. But don't let that fool you into thinking this is anything other than a by the numbers project that struggles and ultimately fails to overcome its pedestrian score and truly atrocious book. There is not enough pixie dust in the world to make Neverland fly, and no amount of stagecraft can disguise that fact. The only thing that takes the edge off a director as talented as Paulus helming something this awful is the knowledge that without her prodigious talents it would have been much, much worse.


  1. I really hope this doesn't turn Mrs. Paulus into the M. Knight Shyamalan of Broadway. I really love her work.

  2. It's actually M. Night Shyamalan. There's no K in his name. And M. Night Shyamalan actually just made his first good movie in a long time--The Visit. While that movie might be too creepy to be a stage musical, I could see it as a play. And it does feature Tony winner Deanna Dunnagan as one of the main characters and Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger in a small role.

  3. I also forgot to mention that one of the leads in M. Night Shyamalan's next film will be Broadway's original Grizabella, the legendary Betty Buckley.

  4. I haven't seen this show, but I have heard that Harvey Weinstein wants to make a movie version of this musical. That seems unnecessary to me, since we already have a fine Oscar-winning non-musical movie version of Finding Neverland starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, which this show was of course adopted from.

    There is a touring production of this show that will play in my city, but I don't plan to see it. I'm saving my money for the touring productions of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime and Wicked (which I have still never seen. Please don't be mad at me).

  5. How do you feel about the fact that this show won several Audience Choice Awards, including Favorite New Musical?

    1. I feel "Favorite" is very different from "Best."

      You also have to keep in mind that a large part of the audience (especially those who vote on these awards) are younger theatregoers who tend to be very loyal to the shows and artists that had an impact on them when young. These are the people who watched all 6 seasons of "Glee" and think Matthew Morrison can do no wrong. The people who continue to be obsessed with "Wicked" and think no one can ever be better than Kristin Chenoweth or Idina Menzel at anything.

      Also, since anyone can vote on the Audience Awards, many people do so without even seeing the shows they vote on. If Matthew Morrison hadn't been in the show, I don't think they'd even think twice about it.

    2. That's often the same problem I have with award shows like the People's Choice Awards and the MTV Movie Awards, cause those shows are decided on by online audience vote rather than actual professionals. At least when I vote for the People's Choice Awards and the MTV Movie Awards, I vote for what I think is most truly deserving to win, even if it's the least popular person/movie on the list.