Finding Neverland is a curious enterprise, a movie-based Broadway musical targeting family audiences that’s more about the grown-up business of struggling playwright J.M. Barrie than a depiction of his most beloved and kid-tested creation, Peter Pan. That’s the first of many stumbling blocks for this pricey, overblown production, which opened tonight at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with the enthusiastic, deep-pocketed backing of movie mogul–turned–theater impresario Harvey Weinstein.
In his first effort as a lead Broadway producer, the notoriously dogged Oscar campaigner is backing a musicalized version of a 2004 Miramax drama that starred Johnny Depp as Barrie and Kate Winslet as the young widow in early-20th-century London who, along with her four young sons, inspired him to create his biggest hit, about a boy who manages to resist the inevitable march to adulthood.
While making-of stories have become a cottage industry in Hollywood, with films about the origin of everything from Mary Poppins to Vertigo to Deep Throat landing in cineplexes in recent years, they have generally been pitched to adults. There’s the continual tug of nostalgia, of course, as well as prevailing interest in behind-the-scenes drama. It’s not clear that the approach works as well on stage, though, or why kids in particular would want to follow the travails of a creatively blocked Scottish writer in an unhappy marriage as opposed to another take on the adventures of Wendy, Peter, and the Lost Boys.
It doesn’t help that whoever plays Barrie must follow the inimitable man-child Johnny Depp (who picked up an Oscar nomination for his troubles). While former Glee star Matthew Morrison has a solid stage presence and a strong, clear singing voice, he’s entirely too stiff to convey the buoyant sense of play that Depp did. He lacks twinkle.
Laura Michelle Kelly (Mary Poppins) doesn’t fare much better as Sylvia, the ailing young widow and single mom originated by Winslet on screen. It’s not that her quasi-adulterous flirtation with Barrie make her unsympathetic — particularly after Barrie’s mismatched first wife (Teal Wicks) dumps him in the first act and the onset of a telltale cough — but Sylvia doesn’t really have much to do in this telling aside from reflect the glow of either Barrie or her kids.
Despite enduring a Cheers-related punchline that feels too easy (and meta), Kelsey Grammer makes a generally strong impression as Barrie’s wise-cracking American producer — whose cane and fixation on missed deadlines help inspire Captain Hook. But Grammer, a Tony nominee for the 2010 revival of La Cage aux Folles, is saddled with some of the worst songs in a production of middling musicality.
It’s worth noting that the movie’s lone Oscar victory went to Jan Kaczmarek’s lush, symphonic score, which has been jettisoned here for new tunes by former British boy-bander Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. (True to his Harvey Scissorhands rep, Weinstein also commissioned — and then scrapped — another complete stage adaptation of the film, including a full score by Grey Gardens composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie.)
As you might expect, the Barlow-Kennedy songs have a synth-friendly Brit-pop quality with the occasional hint of Irish pipes. There’s a fun boy-band-ish quartet for the Llewelyn Davies children, “We’re All Made of Stars,” and a standout ballad, “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” a duet for Barrie and the most sensitive of the Llewyn-Davies boys, Peter (Aidan Gemme showed bookish charm at the performance I attended; he shares the role with Jackson Demott Hill and Christopher Paul Richards). But there’s also a lot of musical filler here, and a handful of unmelodic clunkers. And the lyrics are a grab-bag of banalities rarely rising above obvious rhymes of the “sun/fun” variety. One full-blown ensemble number, “Play,” seems to consist entirely of familiar nursery rhymes sung in succession and verbatim. Straight up, no twist.
The show’s biggest twists come in director Diane Paulus’ elaborate physical production, from Scott Pask’s storybook set design and Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s period-appropriate costumes. Paul Kieve, who worked with Paulus on the Tony-winning revival of Pippin, conjures some stunning on-stage illusions, including a climactic glitter tornado that marks the earthly exit of a key character. It’s a show-stopper, but it ironically undercuts what should be Finding Neverland‘s core message. As Peter and the Starcatcher demonstrated just a few years ago with its own artfully shoestring-seeming approach to Barrie’s classic, big-budget, high-tech razzle-dazzle are no match for the simple, childhood act of make-believe. Grade: C+