I suggest that producers, composers, writers, stars and others with lots of money earned from their work other than in theatre, those who have done no apprenticeship in theatre, who have never trained in it, who have never paid it the slightest attention, should be forced to intern on at least one Broadway play or musical before they plunge head first into the theatre, often crashing. losing millions of dollars of their own and other people’s money, then crawling back into the movies, music, publishing and industrial worlds. For many it is just getting a whiff of “Broadway” that lures them. No one wants to take leave from his or her homefield without at least one crack at Broadway. Some sneak through, and are often wise enough to quit while they’re ahead. Larry David (Fish In The Dark), Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots), Trey Parker and Matt Stone (The Book of Mormon) are recent examples of first timers who hit it big first time out. But far more often we have folks like Paul Simon (The Capeman), Sting (The Last Ship), Victor Young (Seventh Heaven), Scott Fitzgerald (The Egg), Maureen O’Hara (Christine), Phil Collins (Disney’s Tarzan), Ernest Hemingway (The Fifth Column), all of whom came, saw and fled after one time at bat.
Which leads me to Harvey Weinstein, an experienced producer who moves from film into theatre where he has put together a very expensive mess of a musical called Finding Neverland. It is a fine example of the kind of show so loaded with compromise that it sets a bad example, and in the end it bites the hand that feeds it. The irony is that by thinking only in terms of what might sell tickets, it has blundered in almost all departments. Its score is by Gary Barlow and Elliot Kennedy, multi award-winning composer/lyricists who have made their fortune in England in the pop music field, and I suppose it was assumed that they could turn out a musical score that would serve the story and send its audiences out humming or quoting its wise and witty lyrics. It didn’t happen. The score is banal, the lyrics are predictable, filled with cliches and unrhymed couplets. Its book is by James Graham, an established British novelist with no apparent connection to the writing of musical books.
Director Diane Paulus gave us two brilliantly staged revivals of Pippin and Porgy and Bess, but this is her first original musical and she does not seem to be able to control original material or the actors she’s engaged to play it.
Finding Neverland is based on the Miramax Film and a novel by Allan Knee, but in casting it, she and her collaborators have elected to fill it with recognizable names who are misused.
Matthew Morrison is an attractive and popular young leading man, who has a following from his long run on the TV series Glee. That show made use of his good looks, his romantic appeal and his ability to sing. The role of J.M.Barrie, a 19th Century playwright buries him in heavy form fitting suits and ties, and attempts to turn him into a character actor. His producer is the tremendously successful Charles Frohman and to play him, they’ve hired popular Kelsey Grammer. Best known as Frazier, the title role in the long running sitcom, he plays Frohman as though Frazier were in a community theatre production sponsored by Cheers, the friendly bar which first introduced us to Frazier as a character. There is even a cheap reference to the series which got a big laugh from the crowd. Only Laura Michelle Kelly among the principals, as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of 4 boys whom she seems to take to the park a lot, seems at home in the London in which the musical is set.
The story is interesting to a point, but it isn’t substantial enough to fill a 2 l/2 hour musical, not one with an uninteresting score. To fill the time, a number of unnecessary songs are tossed at us, one called “Play” which allows Mr. Frohman to quote nursery rhymes along with members of his acting company. As mentioned, Mr. Grammer is not a singer, so he bellows in tempo, and he moves about as gingerly as he can, but I wouldn’t call it dancing. Mr. Frohman doesn’t appear that often, so they put Grammer to work playing Captain Hook in a fright wig, but he’s not very scary. The boys make lots of noise, and are the pesky sort of boys you hope won’t stay on the bus you’re taking on a long journey through town.
And speaking of noise, who ever was in charge of setting the levels on Jonathan Deans’ sound design should be punished. From start to finish the sound is over-amplified, and when the four boys, manic as hell, let loose, I was forced to put my fingers into ears. As the boys are young, they alternate at various performances, so I have no idea which one I saw in the role of Peter Llewelyn Davies, for whom Peter Pan will be named, but the sound amplification make him the most annoying of the four, and as he had the most to say, that did not help.
There are projections of course, and they are well designed by Jon Driscoll. The entire show looks good, but in order to remind us that this is a spectacle, gold dust and fairy dust are liberally sprinkled about to give punch to the finish of several numbers and we all had to applaud to save Tinker Bell’s life, but my heart was not in it, so I don’t think I helped her much.
The song titles should give you an inkling into the wit and wisdom of the lyrics — “If The World Turned Upside Down” opens the show and “The World is Upside Down” opens Act II. Along the way we are treated to such as “All Of London Is Here Tonight”, “We’re All Made of Stars,” “When Your Feet Don’t Touch The Ground,” “What You Mean To Me” and — well, I don’t want to put you to sleep.
The irony is the show, in previews and the early weeks of the run, is doing over $1,000,000 a week at the box office. I can’t believe it will continue at that level once word of mouth gains momentum, but I could be wrong. I do think the entire company, creative staff included, should be commanded to show up at a performance of The King and I to learn something about music, lyrics, book, casting, and sound design.
Mr. Weinstein may be an astute film producer, and he’s given us some good work in theatre as well. I think there must be something in the idea of how Peter Pan came into existence that obsesses him, because his musical is just not first or second rate. What it is large, expensive, noisy, and there is no one to root for except perhaps poor Ms. Kelly, for whom we wish better material next time out.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.
Finding Neverland is playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre – 205 West 46th Street, (between 8th Avenue & Broadway), in New York City. For tickets, call (877) 250-2929, visit the box office, or purchase them online.