Is it pointless to pan Peter? Are we helpless in the face of the massive Peter Pander/Pandemic/Pandemonium (pick your Peter Pan pun.) Shortly after Peter and the Starcatcher and Peter Pan Live on NBC, we now get Finding Neverland, a musical adaptation of the 2004 film about how playwright J.M. Barrie came to create Peter Pan.
Barrie, portrayed by Matthew Morrison (until recently, Mr. Schuester in Glee), is blocked as a writer: “I’m tired of giving people what they expect.” Then he meets four fatherless boys in Kensington Gardens, and their mother, the lovely widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (the lovely Laura Michelle Kelly, a veteran of Mary Poppins and Fiddler on the Roof.)
In playing with the children, he gets back to the child within him. In the process, he and those around him dispense wisdom about art and life:
Simpler and smaller is better.
Don’t act; non-act.
Find the magic within, in your imagination.
Remember that a play is based on “play” – the activity that children do naturally. So have fun. As the theatre impresario Charles Frohman (portrayed by Kelsey Grammer of Cheers fame) sings to his actors:
Can you remember back when you were young
when all the simple things you did were so much fun.
You got lost somewhere along the way.
You’ve forgotten how to play, ev’ry single day
Had only Harvey Weinstein taken the advice of the characters in his show! In the movie mogul’s first foray as the lead producer of a Broadway show (although he’s been a non-lead producer in more than three dozen previous productions on Broadway), Weinstein has chosen the route of “giving people what they expect.”
What audiences expect on Broadway I’ve dubbed the Broadway Effect, and it tends to flourish in the stage musicals that are adapted from movies. In any given season on Broadway, roughly a third of the shows are either adapted from a film or so closely associated with one that the film serves both to lure an audience into the musical, and to raise audience expectations—the former a godsend for the producers, the latter a terror for the creative team. How do you offer something both comforting and exciting, familiar and surprising?
Shimmering stars against a deep black night (I mean the celestial bodies, but of course celebrities are also now standard.)
Magically moving scenery (via computer automation)
A large ensemble
Confetti or other colorful detritus shot out of (on-stage or off-stage) cannons
Something, in other words, big and flashy. What you are really seeing when you watch such stage effects is, above all, money being spent. Let’s be honest: Watching money can be entertaining.
Weinstein hired director Diana Paulus, who turned Pippin into a circus, and she hired illusionist Paul Kieve, to put the Broadway Effect into effect in Finding Neverland. The musical both begins and ends with Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, the ending, with a flashy scene involving both Sylvia and Peter Pan that I found especially inappropriate. “Stronger,” an elaborate musical number right before Intermission, marks the moment when Barrie finds the key to unblocking his imagination. It’s not a quiet revelation: Captain Hook (Grammer again) suddenly appears and an entire ensemble of pirates loudly hoist aboard an (expensive looking) pirate ship that magically assembles before our eyes, billowing with smoke.
The flash doesn’t drown out the other aspects of the production. The acting is fine – the children in particular avoid the normal pitfalls of child acting – and it’s reassuring that the cast has such consummate professionals as 13-time Broadway veteran Carolee Carmello in the role of Sylvia’s well-meaning but stern aristocratic mother Mrs. du Maurier, and Josh Lamon as a member of the resistant acting troupe (Finding Neverland doubles as something of a backstage comedy.)
The musical has funny moments and moving moments. The score mostly offers a sweet, bouncy British pop sound from songwriters Elliot Kennedy and Gary Barlow, front-man of the 1990’s British boy band Take That.
There is nothing here outright to hate, and the attention to state-of-the-art stagecraft can be justified in a show that offers little real dramatic tension. The audience knows full well that Barrie will break through his block and create a successful show: his play Peter Pan was produced on Broadway alone seven times, starting in 1905 and ending in 1951, when it was supplanted by Disney and a musical and movies and spin-offs and toys and theme parks.
But understanding the context results in a feeling of disappointment.
The true story of J.M. Barrie and his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies clan is complicated, elusive and in certain ways uncomfortable. I won’t touch the extreme accusations, which are unproven. But some undisputed facts are altered in the movie and musical. For example, Barrie knew both Sylvia and her husband Arthur well; Barrie didn’t just happen to meet Sylvia in a park after Arthur’s death.
The character of Peter Pan first appeared in a book by Barrie, not a play.
There is more than a hint in Finding Neverland, after Barrie and his wife divorce, of a budding romantic relationship between Barrie and Sylvia; her sons as adults said this wasn’t true.
Does it matter that a musical diverges from the historical record? Well, yes it does in this case, for it points out the fallacy of romantically conflating and confusing Barrie with his creation.
“That isn’t me,” the boy Peter (Aidan Gemme) says in Finding Neverland, and then points to Barrie. “That’s him. He’s Peter Pan. He’s just using my name. And it’s the best present any boy was ever given, anywhere in the world. “
If you’re going to tell the story of J.M. Barrie, tell it in its uncomfortable complexity and uncertainty (there actually have been a couple of such works.) Don’t cherry-pick Barrie’s biography to make it more family-friendly, and use it as a pretext for yet another packaging of the Peter Pan brand.
It was surely to keep that brand commercially viable that the two critically-praised performers playing the leads in the A.R.T. production of Finding Neverland in Cambridge were replaced by two TV stars, Morrison and Grammer (both of whom also have extensive theatrical credits), on the hope they would be a bigger draw.
At one point, when the impresario played by Grammer takes the cast out drinking, one of the actors asks: “Do they say ‘cheers’ where you’re from, Charles?”
“I believe they do, yes….Cheers.”
— getting by far the largest laughter and applause of the evening.
Here is Morrison singing Barlow and Kennedy’s “Neverland”
It’s a lovely enough song. Can it – should it – replace “Neverland,” one of the songs we know and love from the Mark Charlap/Carolyn Leigh musical Peter Pan, first introduced on Broadway in 1954 starring Mary Martin and revived five times since?
“I have a place where dreams are born,
And time is never planned.
It’s not on any chart,
You must find it with your heart.
Never Never Land.”
Finding Neverland is on stage at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater 205 West 46th Street, (between 8th Avenue & Broadway) New York, N.Y. 10036
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