Monday, May 11, 2015

Margin Notes: Finding Neverland

Matthew Morrison and Laura Michelle Kelly as J.M. Barrie
and Sylvia Llewlyn Davies. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Finding Neverland

Seen on: Thursday, 5/7/15.
My grade: B-

Plot and Background
Playwright J.M. Barrie, struggling to write a new play that's not just a rehash of his earlier work, encounters widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four precocious sons and finds not only inspiration for Peter Pan, but a family that needs him as much as he needs them. This musical, commissioned by Harvey Weinstein and based off Miramax's film by David Magee and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, was originally produced at Curve in Leicester in 2012. A revised version (with new writers and creative team) ran at the American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts in 2014. That production transferred - with some recasting - to Broadway this spring.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd seen the film on which this is based, and wasn't that wild about it, but I'd also heard good reviews from some friends of mine, so I tried to go in with an open mind.


Play: I don't quite know how to evaluate this show. It sometimes works. It almost works. And then it stops working. So many songs end with the cast wearing expressions of exultation that the song itself did not reach or earn. And the scenes themselves are generally so overacted by the supporting players - it must be a choice, but a highly questionable one - that each line feels like an absurd declaration into a vacuum, with no connection to the rest of the show. There is definitely a problem in the writing - the lyrics are in general not interesting enough to be memorable, and the music, while not badly done, doesn't help elevate them. (there are a few exceptions, like "The Dinner Party," "Stronger," or "When Your Feet Don't Touch the Ground") But I wonder if the problem may actually just be that Paulus was the wrong director for this piece, though I've liked her other work tremendously. The staging of the songs feels slightly wrong, the scenes have no grounding in reality - not even in Barrie's heightened reality - and there's very little chemistry or consistency of tone. But then - sometimes there are moments of magic, of transcendence, that help excuse some of the annoying bits beforehand (see discussion in design). Oh and for God's sake, we all agree that Cheers joke was so far beneath them that it may already be buried underground?

Cast: The biggest surprise for me was Kelsey Grammer, whom I had previously seen miscast in La Cage aux Folles, where he struggled and failed to stay on pitch through his songs. Here the songs seemed tailored to his range - he sounded fine - and he knows how to deliver a punch line to receive the largest laugh. And of course his penchant for scenery chewing lent itself well to his dual role as Hook. Matthew Morrison was, as always, a solid and precise performer with a lovely voice, but I didn't necessarily feel that spark of mischief the role demands. Laura Michelle Kelly was perfectly lovely in a role that unfortunately didn't ask for much more from her. The boys were okay? They tried. They're kids.

Design: Scott Pask's set was a lovely tableau - an artist's sketch of Kensington Gardens, a clock, other pieces evocative of imagery we associate with the story of Peter Pan - and the parallels further heightened when the map of the garden, on the back wall, is swapped out with a map of Neverland. I don't usually comment on sound because I generally feel too ignorant to do so credibly, but I should remark that the sound mixing was dreadful for this show - I gave up on trying to understand the lyrics during the group numbers, overpowered as they were by the orchestra. Kenneth Posner's lighting effects are shown to their best effect with the shadow play in Barrie's and Sylvia's duet by the ghostlight, or when hightlighting the moments of magic - when Barrie sees the children flying about the nursery, or with Sylvia's final exit. Speaking of Sylvia's exit, I'm not sure whom to credit for this moment - Paul Kieve (Illusions) or Daniel Wurtzel (Air Sculptor) - probably both, but I had been sitting there determined I wouldn't cry when she died and they completely undermined my intentions - the column of shimmering confetti, Peter Pan leading her to the window and Neverland, and the shawl left dancing on its own - by far my favorite moment in the show.


Running: Now playing at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre - Opened: April 15, 2015.
Category: musical
Length: 2 hours, 30 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Book: James Graham
Music & Lyrics: Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy
Based on: Miramax Motion Picture Finding Neverland written by David Magee and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee.
Director: Diane Paulus
Designers: Mia Michaels (Choreography), Scott Pask (Set), Suttirat Larlarb (Costume), Kenneth Posner (Lighting), Jonathan Deans (Sound), Jon Driscoll (Projections), Simon Hale (Orchestrations), Paul Kieve (Illusions), Daniel Wurtzel (Air Sculptor), Production Resource Group (Flying Effects).
Cast: Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer, Laura Michelle Kelly, Carolee Carmello, Teal Wicks, Alex Dreier, Aidan Gemme, Jackson DeMott Hill, Noah Hinsdale, Sawyer Nunes, Chris Richards, Hayden Signoretti, Courtney Balan, Dana Costello, Colin Cunliffe, Rory Donovan, Chris Dwan, Kevin Kern, Josh Lamon, Melanie Moore, Mary Page Nance, Fred Odgaard, Emma Pfaeffle, Jonathan Ritter, Tyler Ross, Julius Anthony Rubio, Paul Slade Smith, Ron Todorowski, Jaime Verazin, Jessica Vosk.

Sawyer Nunes, Alex Dreier, Laura Michelle Kelly, Aidan Gemme,
Matthew Morrison, and Christopher Paul Richards. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

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