Finding Neverland flies. Occasionally it even soars. The miracle is that the darned thing not only got off the ground, but that this musical prequel to the Peter Pan story arrives on Broadway much improved after a storied, bumpy tour of the hinterlands, with its intermittent charms intact, many of its missteps gone or at least minimized, and a ready appeal to family audiences that could insure a hit if only producer Harvey Weinstein honored his promise to keep ticket prices reasonable. We’ll have to see on that score.
The show is based on the 2004 Miramax movie starring Johnny Depp as Peter Pan creator J.M Barrie and Kate Winslet as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, mother of the male brood that inspires the blocked, unhappy playwright to dream up Neverland and its most famous ambassador. In its transition from screen to stage there were, to understate, birthing pains that involved tossing the script, the score, the director, various stars and sub-stars and even the publicist, with all the attendant gossip that in an earlier era was mostly confined to the backstage.
By last summer, a second version of Finding Neverland opened at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge Massachusetts, staged by that nonprofit company’s artistic director Diane Paulus (a Tony winner for her Pippin revival whose productions of Hair and The Gershwins’ Porgy And Bess also won Tonys). I thought it was pretty bad, as did my colleague Ben Brantley at the New York Times, though we both took care to acknowledge that the show would certainly undergo more changes before arriving at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, where it’s now opened.
And change it has: Matthew Morrison (Glee) has replaced Jeremy Jordan as Barrie. Kelsey Grammer has replaced Michael McGrath as the American producer Charles Frohman and, later, Captain Hook (played in the film by Dustin Hoffman). More important, the opening has been completely revamped to bring us directly into the story, and the script, by James Graham, has been sharpened so as not to treat the audience too much like idiots.
The budding love stories — first between Barrie and the sons who will become the Lost Boys — and, inevitably, between the married Barrie and widder Davies — are good ones. And to my eye, the too-precious look and sound of the show (Scott Pask and Kenneth Posner designed the Art Nouveau-ish sets and dreamscape lighting, respectively) has been toned down considerably from the hyper-twee state it inhabited in Harvardville.
Perhaps Weinstein and Paulus were correct in replacing Jordan with the better-known Morrison, who has the look and voice of a Broadway star but is something of a stiff. The role wants a mood transplant, a child-like quality to which Jordan was more suited. Grammer, on the other hand, is an indisputable improvement simply because he’s the kind of low-key acerbic star the show need if it has any chance of appealing to the parents whose children will be dragging them to the show. As Frohman, Grammer is the angsty producer worried that his star writer has lost his touch. As Hook, he’s just a ton of fun, looking as though he’s actually enjoying himself, sashaying around the stage, brandishing his hook and bullying J.M into taking a chance on something different, into growing up by growing down.
As to the score by pop writers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, well it doesn’t offend, but I was still impervious to its desperate attempts to win me over with the treacly anthem “Believe” and songs that too readily evoke better-known songs: “The Circus Of Your Mind” (I kept thinking of Marilyn and Alan Bergman/Michelle LeGrand’s “The Windmills Of Your Mind”) and “Neverland” (I don’t even want to go there). And they’ve given the lovely Laura Michelle Kelly, who plays Sylvia, a rousing 11 o’clock number stuck oddly in the middle of Act I. We could have waited.
Finding Neverland is still too treacly — it lacks the edge and humor of both Wicked and Matilda — and the tear-wringing ending just goes on forever. I wish Paulus and company had resisted the kind of pandering, play-to-the-lowest-brow moments that broadcast flop sweat, notably a reference to fairies that is simply a gratuitous slur, and a dopey reference to Cheers that gets its laugh.
But there’s an audience for this show, which is visually cunning and something of a warm bath without being too insulting. It’s not for the Sondheim or the post-Sondheim crowd. It’s a sentimental throwback, unembarrassedly so.