During the second act of Finding Neverland, playwright J.M. Barrie (Matthew Morrison) suggests that twenty-five seats at the premiere of his new play, Peter Pan, should be reserved for children. At the start of the play-within-a-play, theater owner Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammar) asks all the children in both audiences to wave their hands in the air. Despite a sold-out Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, there could easily have been fewer than twenty-five children in attendance.
This is the problem facing Finding Neverland, an adaptation of the 2004 movie with serious Hollywood backing. (The musical is produced by Harvey Weinstein, who also produced the film.) After a run at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, the $10 million production is opening on Broadway this Wednesday. However, the family-friendly production has one big problem: the story of a struggling playwright may not pack the seats with teens and their parents, despite the casting of two big TV stars, Mr. Morrison from Glee and Mr. Grammar from a show where everybody knows his name. Finding Neverland may be about Peter Pan, but it’s not about the character or his story—it’s about the 1904 play, a subject with significantly less appeal.
J.M. Barrie is a successful author and playwright facing a nasty case of writer’s block. He taps into the youth and energy of four young boys—including one named Peter—and their widowed mother to produce his best work yet: Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Hook and other characters from the world of Neverland make appearances, but make no mistake, the play focuses on the mid-life struggles of a moderately successful writer without the danger and messiness of the true-life Barrie story.
Even this would be tolerable for both children and children who refuse to grow up if it came with a few catchy musical numbers. Unfortunately, while well-sung, the songs in Finding Neverland are almost entirely forgettable. The energetic number where Barrie confronts his demons (personified by Hook, also played by Mr. Grammar) that closes the first act is clunky and confusing, with lyrics that need another revision. (“Unleash me,” Hook appeals. “But I don’t know howwwwwww,” Barrie wails.) At the production I attended, the orchestra was consistently mixed louder than the singers’ voices.
But the top of the play is significantly slower than the sentimental second act, which picks up steam as the production of Peter Pan speeds towards opening night. One of the highlights of the show is the few minutes where Finding Neverland actually depicts the play-within-the-play, which gives Peter Pan, Hook, and Wendy a chance to anchor a song. You wonder why the production couldn’t have put less emphasis on Barrie’s problems with high society and expanded the roles of Peter Pan and his lost boys. You even get the sense that someone wanted more Peter Pan in the play—the character shows up in the first scene but doesn’t make a repeat appearance until the second act, flying on wires above the stage.
Finding Neverland is a big budget production with the polish you can expect from a Broadway musical. Although the choreography of some numbers is muddled due to a large number of backup dancers, the staging, sound, and acting are top-notch across the board. Particular note should be paid to the four Llewelyn Davies boys, who steal a few numbers with their prepubescent chorus and Carolee Carmello, playing their grandmother, whose alto is the best voice in the production.
The two topliners, Mr. Morrison and Mr. Grammar, don’t stand out from the rest of the cast. Mr. Morrison is a fine singer, but his Barrie is colorless and lacks personality—sure, Barrie wants to stay young, but he never acts like a child. Mr. Grammar delivers his lines in a kind of talking cadence, lacking the pipes of his castmates, but his dry wit and impeccable comedic timing help his lines land. Still, his biggest laugh of the night was a wink to his television fame when an actor asks Frohman whether they “say cheers where you’re from.”
I’m sure Mr. Weinstein wants to turn his eleven-year-old Johnny Depp vehicle into a consistent moneymaker like Wicked—that’s why Glee heartthrob Mr. Morrison plays Barrie and why the show had several creative teams on its way to Broadway. But it’s going to be hard to get the young and the forever young out to a musical about a frustrated playwright when what the audience really wants is a little bit of magic.