Finding Neverland review – Gary Barlow's dull songs sink muddled show

Lunt-Fontanne Theater, New York
Harvey Weinstein has spent millions trying to make a film about Peter Pan’s author fly on stage – but though the child stars shine, the music is leaden

Do you believe in fairies? Does Harvey Weinstein?

The famously fractious producer has spent millions of dollars and run through a couple of casts and creative teams in a diehard attempt to transform the 2004 Miramax film Finding Neverland into a Broadway show. If only he knew what kind of Broadway show it wanted to be.

Partly a weepie, partly a backstage comedy, partly a biography, partly a romance, partly a kiddie show, partly a magic show, there’s something here for everybody – but not really enough of anything for anybody. “It’s a play for everyone,” Matthew Morrison’s JM Barrie insists. “Everyone who has a child inside of them, screaming to get out.” But perhaps some of those children were screaming to get out of the Lunt-Fontanne at intermission.

The story, especially as fudged in the Miramax film, is compelling enough: the celebrated playwright Barrie, childless and childlike, befriends a quartet of spirited boys and falls for their widowed mother, Sylvia Llewellyn Davies. Together they inspire him to create Peter Pan, but the mother dies politely shortly after opening night, not before making Barrie one of the guardians of her boys.

The production began with Rob Ashford at the helm and Broadway vets Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (Grey Gardens, Far From Heaven) providing the music and lyrics. After a tryout in Leicester, he scrapped that squad and pulled in Diane Paulus and Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy with in-demand playwright James Graham (Privacy, This House) now supplying the book. The result is a well-intentioned muddle, though it does offer the best use of stage glitter since Hedwig’s eye makeup.

Morrison, of Glee, plays Barrie with a hangdog face, a gentle mien and a soft Scottish burr that vanishes as soon as he starts to sing. Kelsey Grammer, of Frasier, is Charles Frohman, an American impresario, a role he mostly speak-sings, Rex Harrsion-style. (He’s also the willing butt of a Cheers joke.) Laura Michelle Kelly, that great concatenation of first names, came to fame as Mary Poppins, but here she’s the mother rather than the nanny and she sings and acts sweetly. The child actors are charmers (we seem to be living in a golden age of short performers) and Aidan Gemme is especially fine as Peter. His duet with Morrison is the show’s musical highlight.

But this is faint praise. Most of Barlow and Kennedy’s songs are dull adult contemporary ballads, forgotten before they’re even over. An exception is Barrie and Sylvia’s love duet What You Mean to Me, which sounds like every terrible song you ever slow-danced to in secondary school and so sticks in the mind just a little longer.

Director Paulus keeps throwing in magic tricks and storybook set changes, but no amount of illusionism can make the songs any better or the script and style seem any more definite. “Don’t lose faith,” Sylvia comforts Barrie. “You’ll get there.” Finding Neverland tries to find the way – second star to the right and straight on till morning – but it never quite arrives.

Contributor

Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

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