Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Well, a few things, maybe.
It’s not at all hard to understand why Harvey Weinstein turned to Diane Paulus to overhaul Finding Neverland, the musical based on Miramax’s 2004 movie starring Johnny Depp as Peter Pan creator J.M Barrie. Paulus brings a broad catholicity of taste to her work as artistic director of the non-profit American Repertory Theatre, and that wide-ranging sensibility has led to her own souped-up, physically dazzling revivals of Hair and Pippin, both of which moved to Broadway.
When a 2012 tryout in Leicester, England under the leadership of Rob Ashford was met with yawns, Weinstein sent Finding Neverland back to the drawing board. In addition to hiring Paulus, he replaced Allan Knee (who wrote The Man Who Was Peter Pan, the basis for the film) with James Graham as book writer. U.K. pop-music specialists Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy were brought in to write a new score.
Weinstein has already announced his plan to bring the showto Broadway next spring. So in all fairness I stress that the show on display at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, MA is very much a work-in-progress. That said, there’s very much work to be done.
The show opens with a nice bit of magic: A tiny, hologramish Tinkerbell flits about the front-of-house, until the curtain parts and we’re backstage at a London theater where the American theatrical producer Charles Frohman (Michael McGrath, in enjoyable, high-Nathan Lane mode) is imploring Barrie (Jeremy Jordan) to come up with another hit along the lines of The Admirable Crichton. But Barrie has a severe case of writer’s block, perhaps brought on by his marriage-gone-cold to social-climbing Mary (Jeanna De Waal).
For inspiration, he retreats to Kensington Gardens, where he comes under the spell of four fatherless brothers and, eventually, their soulful widowed mother, Sylvia (Laura Michelle Kelly). He is particularly drawn to the saddest boy, Peter (the charming Aidan Gemme), most affected by his father’s death and so most in need of recapturing his sense of wonder.
That’s ultimately what Finding Neverland is all about — not just for the kiddies but, it turns out, for James, for Frohman, for the self-loving actors in his troupe (imagine! self-loving actors!), why, even for the servants in the Barrie household who, when set loose by choreographer Mia Michaels, fly about the dining room table like ecstatic dancers from a Jules Feiffer drawing. (The rest of the dancing is arch and anachronistic.)
“Believe,” Barrie sings to the boys and their Mom, in the central song in a mostly bland and forgettable score. There are a few memorable moments but no memorable tunes; even the titles — “Circus Of Your Mind,” “Neverland”, “We’re All Made of Stars” — invoke other, better songs. It’s a fairly long march from Tinkerbell to the truly inspired scene near the end of Act I when Frohman, unwittingly assisted by a shadow perfectly cast by his cane, gives Barrie the idea for Captain Hook (also played by McGrath, with more elan than he brings to Frohman).
All this unfolds on Scott Pasks’s sets, which course oddly between the surreal (there’s even a Dali-esque clock overseeing things) and the realistic. Whimsyand more whimsy could be said to afflict the show in overdose. It will need to be toned down considerably if any Broadway audience members above the age of five can be expected to sit through it all (let alone buy tickets).
Further work, mostly in regard to trimming the verbiage, is also necessary from Graham, who needs to trust us just a little bit more (when a line about the carefree “60s” gets a big laugh, the author can’t help but add “the 1860s” because what, we’re idiots?). When his actors threaten mutiny over the idea of a play about children and fairies (another too-obvious line, there) Frohman lectures them on “play” and the connection between what they present and what they do. Not an original idea.
However, Paulus and her team of magicians (Gilles Papin, projections; Daniel Wurtzel, “air sculptor”; Paul Kieve, illusions) do have some wonderful tricks up their collective sleeves. And Jeremy Jordan and Laura Michelle Kelly are pretty terrific leads (even when the songsmiths and Paulus give Sylvia a stage-clearing 11 o’clock number – in the middle of the first act).
Will they be able to erase the too-recent memory of Peter And The Starcatcher, which was more inventive, if similarly cutesy? The more urgent question is: Are Weinstein and his talented team up to the task of improving a 1904 play and 1954 musical that, even today, still seem perfect? To quote the ’70s philosopher Tug McGraw: You gotta believe.