There is a song in the middle of Act II of the new musical, Finding Neverland, the story of how playwright J.M. Barrie created Peter Pan, simply entitled “Play.” The show’s producer, Charles Frohman (Kelsey Grammer), exhorts his troupe of actors to have fun with their roles, not to be so serious if they want to connect with the audience. I only wish the creative team of Finding Neverland would have taken their own advice. The musical too often lumbers along with an earnestness that belies the nature of the show. The production can soar, as in the Act I closer, “Stronger,” but that is more the exception then the rule.
Finding Neverland tells the story of how the beloved play, Peter Pan, came into existence. Barrie (Matthew Morrison), a highly successful London playwright at the turn of the twentieth century, is searching for inspiration for a new show to write. Pressured by his longtime producer; beautiful, but dispirited wife (Teal Wicks); and others the writer’s creative spark is ignited by a chance meeting in the park with four boys and their sickly, widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly). The boys are rambunctious, full of energy and imagination. Barrie, who’s life is anything but exciting, immediately takes to Ms. Davies and the children. Their frequent rendezvous leads the author to his breakthrough play even though it takes a toll on his marriage and the health of the woman he now admires and respects.
The book of Finding Neverland by James Graham, based on the movie of the same name, moves the story along, but lacks any sustained dramatic tension. We never become seriously involved with most of the characters. The show mostly plods from scene to scene, rarely achieving hoped for magical heights.
The score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, two hugely popular artists in the United Kingdom, is a huge letdown based on their previous chart successes. The songs fitfully spring to life, but only occasionally do they fly or hit a tender chord.
The cast is uniformly good except for Matthew Morrison as J.M. Barrie. He is overly solemn and somewhat stiff. His underlying joy is suppressed and, literally, hidden behind a full facial beard. Kelsey Grammer as Charles Frohman and Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, however, sparkle. Grammer, coming across a bit like his frumpish, pompous “Frasier” television character, nonetheless, commands the stage, has the best lines and enlivens the stage during a couple of production numbers. Laura Michelle Kelly is endearing and radiates an inner strength, which makes her the emotional core of the musical. Carolee Carmello, as Ms. Davies’ mother, is sufficiently Victorian in attitude and demeanor. The four children are energetic, hit their marks, and sing competently, but they do not charm nor are they appealing as a group.
Director Diane Paulus, who has worked magic with such recent Broadway musicals as the revival of Hair, The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Pippin, cannot salvage this one. She has the production come sporadically to life and shows some real flourishes in certain scenes, but the overall effect is a bumpy one.
Finding Neverland, a show that should have enchanted but, instead, disappoints.