Finding Neverland is based on the 2004 Miramax-produced film of the same name about the real-life author of Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie, and how people in his life inspired the creation of that famous play. I saw the film upon release, thought it was good, but that is as far as things went for me.
Harvey Weinstein, Miramax head honcho and producer of the film, has spearheaded the creation of a stage musical based on this property over the course of many years, going so far as to have the show open in the U.K. and have the entire score replaced before bringing it back to the U.S. He has thrown a lot of money at it, hired name stars such as Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer (oddly featured out of costume on a poster advertising the show outside of the theatre), enlisted a good director, Diane Paulus (remember the splendid 2013 revival of Pippin?), and created an ad campaign that promises magic though seems more intent on selling Peter Pan than the story about its creation. That’s a major bait and switch, but it is probably the least of the problems surrounding the show.
Perhaps it was an omen when the usher gave me a Playbill that was water damaged with pages sticking together and a mottled cover. The friend I was with got a damaged one too, and I looked around to see other people trying to navigate through their water logged Playbills as well.
The play opens with what looks like a laser pointer light moving about with sparkly sound effects indicating that it is Tinker Bell. The light disappears behind the curtain, which then parts to reveal Peter Pan scampering about. An unrecognizable Matthew Morrison disguised with a bushy beard and Scottish accent then states with solemn intensity, “This is the story of a story that one year ago was still waiting to be written.” He’s deadly serious, like he’s going to write Crime and Punishment more than a whimsical story about childhood and never growing up. He sings a song so forgettable that I didn’t even remember it until I reviewed my Playbill. The first song I remember was actually the second one performed, “All of London is Here Tonight,” and the only thing I remember about it was that it involved a lot of over-miked and over-amplified screeching that was entirely unintelligible, accompanied by dance moves that resembled some kind of allergic reaction more than choreography.
The setup is that Mr. Barrie’s newest play has opened and no one likes it, and his producer Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer) is urging him to write something new but the same, not anything different – just redundant. In essence, he could be describing Finding Neverland as it tries hard to trade on the magic of Peter Pan (now a cottage industry, what with the recent live broadcast of the stage musical and the upcoming film Pan, much in the same way films and TV shows about vampires go in and out of vogue) without actually offering any magic at all. The actors that make up Barrie’s troupe are all annoying stereotypes, and there are plenty of unfunny comments about fairies in the theatre and visual comedy moments involving one very obese actor prancing and flailing about. There is also a bit with a stagehand moving chairs about, balancing many at once between his arms and legs, that appears to exist only to distract attention away from the inane dialog occurring on the opposite end of the stage.
Barrie goes home to his harpy wife, and the next day meets the Davies children in the park. Three of the children are running about and playing, and their lines and activities reveal no distinguishing personality differences between them. The fourth kid, named Peter, is moping and sullen, and, upon learning that Barrie is a playwright, says making up stories is a silly way to make a living. Barrie meets their mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davis (played by the very sweet Laura Michelle Kelly), and then he goes home to tell his wife about the fascinating family he met in the park. Fascinating? Really? That’s not what I saw. It’s only one of many times in the play when everything feels false and forced. He says they are fascinating so we understand why he starts spending more and more time with them, but there was nothing interesting about any of them in the scene at the park. No meaningful dialogue, no characterization – just some exposition about the father of the children having died recently.
He sees the children and their mother again in the park (good use of some beautiful projections there, one of the few good things I can say about the show), and he gives Peter a journal and proclaims him to be a writer. Why? I don’t know, as in the earlier scene Peter says that making up stories is anything but of interest to him. Barrie and the Davies clan then engage in an inane number entitled “Believe” which is meant to express the magic of being young and full of imagination, but it doesn’t. There are projections of different shapes and long strips of cloths meant to simulate waves, but the lyrics are insipid and banal, and the wide empty grins of the cast seem to indicate some kind of Colgate sponsorship may be at play. It all comes across as so empty without characterization or feeling. When the kids play, their dialogue sounds nothing like what kids around that age would say when playing. It sounds like what it is: heavy-handed and generic.
The next thing we know Barrie’s wife is complaining about all the time that he is spending with the Davies family and that he needs to “grow up” even though he hasn’t really shown that he is anything but grown up to the audience. His producer also comments on his behavior with a song that includes the lyrics, “You’re losing your mind. You’re talking in riddles, and the riddles don’t rhyme!” Neither does that line by the way… Again, the play is saying things are happening rather than showing them, all to go from plot machinations A to B to C without regard for trying to smooth out the transitions or make the path engaging along the way.
It’s hard to believe that this score is better than the one that was replaced. I noticed a sign at the merchandise counter threatening the release of a cast recording, which I suppose is inevitable considering how hard Mr. Weinstein wants this property to be a hit. This score is written by a team of British writers used to writing pop tunes, Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy. Barlow’s Playbill bio states that this is his “first venture into composing the score for a musical,” and let’s hope that he has it permanently out of his system.
The play continues with Sylvia singing “All That Matters” to express how, after the death of her husband, all that matters to her is her children. Well, okay, but the song is written so it could be sung by anyone in any show about anything in particular, or at least it sounded that way to me. The play surges on, dropping incredibly obvious signs as to which of the people in Barrie’s life inspire the characters and situations of Peter Pan, though I can’t imagine such an unlikable group inspiring Barrie to do anything but consider changing his name and relocating to have a fresh start somewhere else. The appearance of Grammer as Hook at the end of the first act fails to bring aboard any magic.
At intermission I overheard an older gay couple discussing the show, and one conceded that at least “it’s better than Zhivago.” Terrific, I thought, as that is the show I had a ticket to see on Friday. Imagining a show worse than Finding Neverland inspired me to drop seeing Doctor Zhivago and Gigi entirely on this trip as my tolerance for seeing a bad show had more than been surpassed.
The second act plunges along with no encouragement. Peter writes a play, and almost as soon as he and his brothers start performing it Sylvia starts to hack up a lung. This is the first time we see any sign that she is ill, and it struck me as unintentionally funny that watching her kids perform their play would apparently prove to be malignant.
The song “Play” is noteworthy for just how awful it is, and I think it is somewhere around this number when one of the members of the acting troupe asks Kelsey Grammer, “Do you say ‘cheers’ where you’re from?” Grammer stops, turns counter-clockwise to face the audience, and waits for the knowing applause and laughter. Grammer’s Playbill bio makes no mention of “Cheers” or “Fraiser” at all, yet his first appearance in the play was followed by applause of recognition for having been in those long-running TV hits. Referencing “Cheers” is a cheap topical joke in a piece that also includes gags rooted in homophobia (the “fairies in the theatre” joke) and body shaming (the obese actor playing the little boy Michael), all of them too stupid to be offensive but distracting nonetheless. “What’s my motivation?” one actor asks, many decades before Method acting became the rage, and that starts off an exercise where Barrie advises him to tone down his performance, which would’ve been good direction for everyone in the cast to follow. There is another cheap shot at the theatre in which a character says, “Musical comedy is the lowest form of art,” and it is followed by a pregnant pause in which the actor faces the audience and waits for their knowing applause. This is a musical comedy? I never would’ve guessed that one.
Finding Neverland is a show that promises magic in the vein of Peter Pan but doesn’t deliver. Every time the proceedings become a little too dull, something is said or shown onstage relating to Captain Hook or Peter Pan (hell, or those characters just appear in dream sequences), as if to remind the audience, “This show is magical! Magic afoot here!” The audience may giggle knowingly, but for what? They aren’t in on the joke like they may think, not really, for they are in the audience of a show called Finding Neverland in which no one ever does.
The less said about the insta-love story that has been added to the show between Barrie and Sylvia the better. My friend remarked how during their love song they strike the famous pose of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio from Titanic, yet another example of liberally borrowing from something well established as a kind of shortcut to eliciting an emotional response.
It seems that the wrong elements were musicalized in this adaptation. Does Peter have a song expressing his sadness over losing his dad or questioning Barrie’s interest in his family? Does Barrie sing about what he finds inspirational about the boys and their mother? Is there a song that ties together Barrie with his new family at the end of the show? Nope, but there is a song titled “Play” about actors putting one on. Score!
There are plenty of shows that aren’t good, but Finding Neverland has the miraculous distinction of being agressively bad. I would say that it is so bad that it has to be seen to be believed, but I don’t want to even suggest morbid curiosity to see such a train wreck should be satiated. How could such talented people (I don’t blame the cast) be involved in such a misfire? Money, I suppose, and Mr. Weinstein has it, but he doesn’t have a good show at which to throw it. It’s unfortunate that a solid good show like Honeymoon in Vegas struggled to find an audience and closed long before its time, yet dreck like this opens with such fanfare.
No stars out of ****