I didn’t believe them. Those who told me how awful Finding Neverland really was, were, I thought, somewhat (if only somewhat) venting over principal producer Harvey Weinstein’s reputed hiring, firing and mistreatment of a fairly well-regarded creative team and starting over with a new director and writers with no musical theatre cred at all, only to at last wind up delivering a show without a sense of having been bred so much as ejaculated—ahem, by which I mean explosively ejected. Behave yourselves.
Well, I didn’t see for myself at first. My voter invitation never arrived, I then got involved in my own show up Canada-way, five or so months passed, in which the voting period ended; and it was only until I returned from Montreal to finally settle back into New York that I thought to pursue seeing the show anew, just to review it, and graciously, I was allowed to attend.
From minute one, it was clear that not only were the reports right; they were conservative. And I was flabbergasted. Finding Neverland was even worse than I might have imagined.
But here’s the factor that simply cannot be ignored.
It absolutely, unequivocally has its audience.
And it satisfies them.
And such an audience was in force—and, so far as I could tell, in harmonious approval—the night I attended.
When a musical belongs to a certain renegade class, like the classic sung-through Euro-musical (before the vocabulary became self-parodistic), or Spring Awakening, or Hamilton, that manage to touch upon something in the zeitgeist, some confluence of culture, currency and style that’s ready to be ignited, there’s usually a way to get at why it hits, irrespective of whether or not a given critic may like it or not; there’s something quantifiable that can be parsed in a large, meaningful context. But when the show is so tawdry of delivery as to be unqualified for that criteria, landing in some gray area between mild replication of renegade tropes and craft-loose traditionalism…then it becomes harder to explain. All I can give you is a best guess.
We’ll start with this. When I say “it hits,” I’m not saying that Finding Neverland is near hit status (i.e. making its money back). Its current marketing strategy includes deep ticket discounts—but that strategy is making it affordable to the audience that wants it. Plus its cast album was recorded late and was released only recently; yet another effort to keep it alive—but albums aren’t cheap to record; it’s a tool for the current run and the future; a London production has been announced. The producers are supporting it and it’s holding steady. But in the current climate, holding steady is a thing.
I’ve not yet seen the hit film upon which the musical is based (screenplay by David Magee), so I don’t know how bookwriter James Graham’s adaptation differs (I do know that the fellow who wrote the source play, Alan Knee, was fired as librettist during the musicals trials and tribulations), but the film’s boilerplate synopsis matches that of the musical, which follows: [the story] follows playwright J.M. Barrie (Matthew Morrison) as he summons the courage to become the writer—and the man—he yearns to be. Barrie finds the inspiration he’s been missing when he meets the beautiful widow Sylvia (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her four young sons: Jack, George, Michael and Peter. Delighted by the boys’ hilarious escapades, Barrie conjures the magical world of Neverland and writes a play unlike any the high-society London theatergoers have ever seen [Peter Pan]. It’s a tremendous risk [as personified by an older character actor—Kelsey Grammar when the show opened, currently Anthony Warlow, very soon Terrence Mann—who plays both Barrie’s badgering-doubtful producer and the badgering-challenging Captain Hook in Barrie’s mind] but as Barrie himself comes to discover, when you believe, you can fly.”
Anyway, it’s a story that happens mostly internally, it’s not really about anything but an author finding his muse, there are no antagonists to speak of, just a little angsty-authory soul-searching (during which Barrie and his society wife [Teal Wicks] realize they’re not quite made for each other, so there’s that, along with widow Sylvia’s grande dame mother [Carolee Carmello] who—well I’m not sure what she does for a living, story-wise, but I’ll allow that it means to be something)—but all the Peter Pan trappings are illustrative and somehow that seems to take the place of an actual plot.
So, after all this preamble. Why is this, dare I say it, objectively terrible show hanging on?
Because somehow, on some level—and this is one of those freak-of-nature alchemy things, I don’t believe it can ever be replicated—Harvey Weinstein, in deciding to eschew artistic nuance for his notion of the broad populism he believes is the key to making this heady material accessible to the hoi poloi, ordered one from column A and one from column B, off the smudgy menu of Stuff That I've Seen Work Before; and at that the a la carte menu, not the whole dinner with extra context. Overblown, muggy acting (that director Diane Paulus is complicit in this is kind of surprising), kid actors exhibiting not a shred of natural behavior when “the cutes” or “indicationitis” will serve; a libretto so slender it just about provides context for the songs; and an anachronistic pop-rock, slightly techno score by un-theatred recording artists (familiar music and bland lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy). And just enough Peter Pan indicia for the connection between Barrie and his creation to earn its keep. Basically a shake ‘n’ bake of ingredients that have proven commercially successful at certain previous times and not necessarily together. And lo, boom, Finding Neverland is this perfect/imperfect package of what audiences looking to Lez Miz and Phantom as models of form—or anyway, of expectation—want more of, perfunctorily conflated with traditional spoken-scene-into-song build. And who’s to say Weinstein was wrong?
In terms of getting exactly what he wanted, not I.
All I can say is, if the state of musical theatre art is something about which you’re passionate, and yet you feel you must see everything of consequence, as I do, walk, don’t run, to the theatre. Walk, I repeat. Walk slowly. You won’t outlast Finding Neverland's tenure at the Lunt Fontanne; but you can try…
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