Never Again, ‘Neverland’

Kevin Kern and Tom Hewitt

Early in the second act of Finding Neverland, the nationally touring musical about the writing of Peter Pan now running at the Paramount Theatre, a weird thought crossed my mind: Are we being trolled? In the middle of Act One, I wrote down the lines, “Where are the stakes? Where is the conflict?” Frustrated theatre producer (Tom Hewitt) asks this of writer J.M. Barrie (Kevin Kern), about Barrie’s new script. Perfect, I thought, I will use that line to illustrate that this show has no stakes and no conflict, and is unaware of that fact. 

But then, in Act Two, came the kicker: “There’s no need to patronize us, we’re not idiots, darling,” crows one character, a melodramatic actor, in response to the truly unconventional script—Flying? Children as characters?!—Barrie has just delivered unto his acting company.

Well, I thought, at least they’re in on the joke.

I hope so, anyway, because the patronizing starts early. After a brief, pre-curtain appearance by a flying light (she-who-we-all-know-will-be-Tinkerbell), the show opens with an extended number about it being sunny in London. Also, it’s 1903. We know because there are repeated lyrics telling us where and when we are and what the weather is like, as though the warm lighting, period costumes and vivid backdrop featuring the Houses of Parliament couldn’t do the job. (Credit due to designers Kenneth Posner, Suttirat Anne Larlab and Scott Pask, respectively.)

The story of Finding Neverland, based (by bookwriter James Graham) on the 2004 Johnny Depp/Kate Winslet movie of the same name, unfolds thusly: Celebrated playwright J. M. Barrie sits in Kensington Gardens, writing the new play his producer, Frohman, is desperate for. He doesn’t realize it’s a pale imitation of his earlier work until Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Christine Dwyer) informs him; she’s a fan, and learns who Barrie is after her brood of unruly boys (including Peter) interrupts his work.

Barrie’s writer’s block, we’re led to believe, stems from being trapped by a stuffy society and a loveless marriage, and through his friendship with OG cool girl/ill widow Sylvia and her four boys, he reclaims his zest for life, locates his inner child and writes the hit of a generation. Along the way there are several very, very long production numbers that boil down to the idea “imagination is fun” (and others whose meaning I couldn’t even guess at) he shakes off his dusty life and finds real love (you’ll never guess with who!).

While helmed by Broadway talent Diane Paulus, Neverland has the feeling of art-by-committee. The show was developed at La Jolla Playhouse in 2011 and premiered in London in 2012, then was entirely reworked before an off-Broadway tryout in 2014 at ART in Boston (where Paulus is AD). Glee star Matthew Morrison originated the role of Barrie on Broadway in 2015, with Kelsey Grammer as Frohmer (who, spoiler, is also Captain Hook). With that kind of stage star power, it’s almost possible to imagine how investors forgave both the amorphously trendy pop-ish score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy and the lurching, overly literal choreography by Mia Michaels, both of which already feel forgettable and dated.

Neverland was further tweaked between Broadway run and national tour, and there are some genuinely charming and funny moments in the show. The gaggle of children is enchanting (though their accents were slippery, they’re no worse than some of the adults). Kern and Dwyer are both sparkly in a restrained, Victorian way, and both boast clarion, Broadway-caliber voices—though they sounded wildly under-amplified, and the small orchestra was so synth-heavy I had to look in the program to see if there were any live musicians in the pit. Hewitt is a standout, a reliable strong lead and an excellent villain, voice booming, ready to make a meal of this schtick-y material.

No surprise, the flights of fancy into imagination are the most fun, and it’s hard not to get sucked into the appeal of a story the Western world knows so well. But as soon as the fun is past the patronizing follows every step of the way, every subtle hint or emotional beat explained repeatedly, lest we miss out any of the meaning.

I love broad comedy—and this talented cast of actors is doing their level best with the funny voices and walks and mugging to the audience they have to work with. But there’s a wide, wide line between broad and lazy. An assistant suggests that maybe Barrie’s new show should be a musical comedy. “That’s the lowest form of art there is,” booms the producer, to uproarious laughter because we’re watching a musical comedy right now, get it? The biggest laugh of the evening came from a play on words about believing in fairies, to which an actor responds that of course he does, he works in the theatre (yes, someone wrote that joke, as though it hasn’t been made 1,000,000,000 times before). 

I could easily focus instead on the wonderfully clever and colorful sets and projections, the moments of “flying” choreography that dotted the show with moments of joy, the tender song between Barrie and a grieving Peter, as they gently debate the merits of growing up or hanging on to childlike wonder. Even in moments of tragedy, this Neverland is a beautiful place. But without an honest story at its center, what does it matter how lovely the landscape?