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New York City Theater

"Finding Neverland"
Lunt-Fontanne Theater

Not even Lunt and Fontanne could have saved “Finding Neverland,” which landed with a thud at the theater named for the fabled acting couple. The new musical is brash and cynical, an insult not only to theater but to the inimitable author whose story this ostensibly is. As one line goes, “The truth is, the play is rubbish.”

James M. Barrie, was a successful playwright (“Quality Street,” “The Admirable Crichton”), forever to be known for the enduring “Peter Pan.” It’s the show’s conceit that Barrie was inspired by a chance meeting with the four Llewelyn Davies boys whose enthusiastic imaginations gave rise to his creation.

If the evening stuck with that concept, digging into the boys and their relationships, all might not have been so bad. But no. Under the guidance of director Diane Paulus, whatever line of development imagined by librettist James Graham or Allan Knee, whose play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” is one basis for the musical (the other is the excellent 2004 film version), is as lost as the Lost Boys.

Pushing aside all the dross, the basic tale is of a man who wouldn’t, couldn’t or just didn’t want to grow up, like his “Peter Pan” orphans. That theme pops up occasionally, but too infrequently to hold one’s attention.

Instead we get sidetracked into cutesy bits and phony backstage shenanigans, like test flying the chubbiest, most effeminate character, who screams with fear while flailing about. When one character remarks that “musical theater is the lowest form of art,” one can only weep. The remark was meant satirically, but it’s an inside joke akin to an anachronistic one about “Cheers” (a not-so-sly reference to one of the show’s stars, Kelsey Grammer) or answering a question about believing in fairies with “I work in the theater – I see them every day.”

Every once in a while, something magical happens. In the midst of this loud, busy show, we get a loving, quiet scene between Barrie and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the boys’ mother. Then there’s “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” a song with felicitous lyrics and a memorable tune (music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy). Or the sentimental, touching final scene that ends in a shower of gold, when Barrie admits “We’re all haunted  by something” (even if we’re never quite sure what that is). On those occasions, the musical seems on the verge of finding if not Neverland then a consistent tone.

Heartthrob Matthew Morrison is Barrie, with Grammer as showman Charles Frohman. Both do what they can. More impressive is Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia, partly because she embodies what this show might have been as she asks Barrie, “When are you going to grow up?” and he answers “Never.” Or how she says, “The beating of my heart is all that matters.” It’s when Barrie says, “People like a circus” and she answers “Well, I don’t” that we get to the essence of the show’s troubles.

Director Paulus likes circuses, obvious from her other outings, “Hair” and “Pippin.” But she likes them at the expense of characterization and substance. Hampered by Scott Pask’s unattractive sets, Kenneth Posner’s flat lighting and Jonathan Deans’ piercing sound design, Paulus never finds the show’s core.

Carolee Carmello is stately yet compassionate as Sylvia’s mother, while Teal Wicks is appropriately uncomprehending as Mrs. Barrie. At the performance caught, Aiden Gemme, Christopher Paul Richards, Sawyer Nunes and Alex Dreier were the affectingly unaffected Llewelyn Davies children. And the English sheepdog was adorable.

But they don’t have a chance. When one character declares he has an ulcer, a theatergoer can only hope it’s not catching.

--David A. Rosenberg
April 17, 2015

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