BWW Reviews: FINDING NEVERLAND Best Left Undiscovered
Like an actress trying to play Pan when the Foy Team suddenly goes on break, there are a lot of talented people left hanging in Finding Neverland, the leaden new musical about the power of whimsy, taken from the story of J.M. Barrie's inspiration for his most famous play, Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up.
Matthew Morrison works admirably hard as the introspective Barrie, the reluctant toast of Edwardian London theatre who's tired of cranking out the same kind of commercially viable attractions for his gregarious American producer, Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer) and wishes to write something more escapist.
The married playwright strikes up a friendship with the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (endearing Laura Michelle Kelly) when a chance meeting between him and her four boys in Kensington Park adds more fuel to his idea about a place where lost boys never grow up.
Barrie sees a bit of himself in the quietest of the quartet, Peter, and encourages him to use his imagination for writing. When Frohman insists that he stop seeing Davies because of way the public might perceive their relationship and to get to work on a standard crowd-pleaser, Barrie finds his model for Captain Hook.
It's a strong-enough story, but the creative elements telling it seem to be continually at odds with each other. The pop rock score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy (both are credited with music and lyrics), heavy on the power ballads, 60s mod hooks and lackadaisical rhyming, and the eccentric, herky-jerky choreography by Mia Michaels don't match the traditional story-telling and Edwardian tone established by bookwriter James Graham (based on the film of the same name).and director Diane Paulus.
The storybook designs by Scott Pask (set), Suttirat Larlarb (costumes) and Kenneth Posner (lights) are very attractive and Paulus uses them to create some lovely visuals that convey the freeing of one's imagination, but there's no getting by the sluggish material. (When Barrie first describes Tinkerbell to his actors, he grandly proclaims, "Her name, remembered for all time, by children across the world, shall be... Shiny Bottom!")
Though Grammer did not play the role in Finding Neverland's pre-Broadway engagement at Cambridge's A.R.T., the buffoonish, culturally elite American producer feels scripted as a replica of his iconic Frasier Crane, especially when he sings lyrics like, "You were wild about Oscar, so I gave you more. / I supported Bernard when no one was Shaw." There's even a moment with a direct reference to Cheers, more suited for a road picture than a serious-minded musical.
The exemplary singing and acting talents of Carolee Carmelo are barely used in her small role as Sylvia's mother.
Through Paulus' strong hand, Finding Neverland always has the look and feel of something enjoyable and imaginative, but theatrical magic begins with what fills the blank pages and that's where the musical seems hopelessly lost.