Finding Neverland inspires a child-like sense of excitement even before the curtain opens. There’s even a tiny Tinkerbell fluttering above the audience for an instant before the opening number. Unfortunately, this pre-show gimmick is far more exciting than most of the actual play, which falls surprisingly short in the magic department.
The new musical, premiering at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge and based off the 2004 movie of the same name, tells the story of J.M. Barrie and his journey in writing the play Peter Pan. The show has garnered much critical attention and boasts an impressive cast, and is booked for Broadway for the Spring 2015 season. It seems to have everything in its favor to become the next big musical.
And yet, for a show so intent on catering to the child within, this play seems committed to providing a minimal amount of excitement for its audience. The first act in particular is slow to action, as Barrie — portrayed with just the right amount of inner turmoil by Smash’s Jeremy Jordan — must overcome writer’s block and his own ennui. Unfortunately, these concepts are difficult to convey on stage, and the result is a slow narrative lacking any real conflict.
Soon Barrie encounters young widow Sylvia Llewen Davies, portrayed by a charming Laura Michelle Kelly, and her four sons, and the group become fast friends. Barrie becomes particularly fond of one of the children, Peter, played by Aiden Gemme, who is still struggling with his father’s death. Barrie raises his, along with the rest of the family’s, spirits by singing about the wonders of imagination, a concept that is physically represented on stage and occasionally works. One number during a disastrous dinner party is especially successful in showing Barrie and the boys’ wild imaginations, helped by the song’s heavy rhythmic quality reminiscent of Meredith Willson’s compositions.
The show finally gives the audience something to route against in the act one finale, when Barrie is visited by his alter-ego, played by Captain Hook himself. Hook — played by Tony Award-winning American stage actor Michael McGrath — who also portrays Barrie’s harried producer and friend, tells Barrie what the audience has by now figured out for themselves: he needs more conflict in his play. The song is the darkest moment of Neverland, as well as the strongest, as the audience gets a first glimpse at something recognizably Peter Pan.
Perhaps book writer James Graham decided to follow Hook’s advice too, because the second act quickly gains a new villain in the form of Sylvia’s deathly illness. The narrative moves with more energy in the second act as Barrie deals with Sylvia’s sickness and rehearsals for his now complete play. In the end, the audience gets to see an abridged version of Barrie’s play, though no flying–only an air sculpture, which creates an impressive structure of whirling glitter in the final scene, reminiscent of but not quite achieving that Peter Pan magic.
And this is Finding Neverland’s problem–it promises the magic of Peter Pan without ever delivering. It wavers between the dark complexity that Peter and the Starcatcher did so well and the child-oriented naivety of Disney’s original adaptation, landing awkwardly in the middle. The talented cast and catchy (if formulaic) score keep the audience interested, but the uncertain tone only confuses what could be a strong production. Hopefully this musical will make up its mind before it gets to Broadway.