“To write that story,” speaks J.M. Barrie (Matthew Morrison) of his then-unwritten Peter Pan, early on in the musical stage adaptation of 2004’s film Finding Neverland,”I had to learn how to fly.” Director Diane Paulus does her best, with a park bench becoming a boat in “Believe” and then the entire set transforming into Captain Hook’s pirate ship in the Act I closer “Stronger”; with creative choreography and frozen tableaus in “The Dinner Party” or with the nightmarish frenzy of “Circus of Your Mind” and its dancing clocks and creepy merry-go-round poles. There’s an absolutely devastating moment, entirely earned, at the end of the musical when Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly) is metaphorically taken by Peter Pan (Melanie Moore) in a whirlwind of glitter, leaving nothing but a dress fluttering in the wind, poetic in the same vein as American Beauty‘s floating, iconic plastic bag. And yet, sadly, just as plastic, because with every flourish Paulus uses to lift up Finding Neverland, there’s someone scheming to pull the production back down to earth–specifically, to the narrowly defined values of Broadway. Whereas Peter and the Starcatchers was a scrappy transplant that managed to keep its starspun charm (a story, after all, told by rebels), Finding Neverland is a commercial enterprise through and through, with Kelsey Grammer hamming things up as Barrie’s producer Charles Frohman (and dropping a joke or two about Cheers) and his acting troupe pointedly reminding audiences of how shallow the whole enterprise normally is.
One particular number, “Play,” is meant to reconnect audiences with their childish selves but seems too embarrassed to get beyond a mere recitation of the nursery rhymes and doggerel that make up its lyrics. Others, like “We’re All Made of Stars” are nothing songs thrown in to pander to the type of crowd that finds four young boys singing amusing, or to hit the requisite number of songs on a producer’s checklist, as with Sylvia’s lovely and exquisitely sung (and utterly pointless) “Lullaby”; in any case, both pales in comparison to the rare heartfelt number that’s actually connected to the plot, like Peter and Barrie’s duet, “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground.”
But then again, that’s the problem with Broadway. It has to be too much to too many people all at once, such that it ends up glossing over the moments where it truly connects with the source material, as when Barrie’s and Sylvia’s shadows dance together to “What You Mean to Me.” A song like “If the World Turned Upside Down” is perfunctory, the lyrical version of exposition, and while a master lyricist like Sondheim could get away with descriptive bits like that in Sunday in the Park with George, Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy’s music and book cannot. They’re tethered to their source material, which was in turn tethered (loosely) to real events, and so for all their talk of fun, freedom, and the imagination, they simply can’t get anywhere with it. It’s the same thing that Eddie Huang complains about with ABC’s sitcom adaptation of Fresh Off the Boat: the story is meant for The Great Whitewashed Way. The production cannot offend, therefore it cannot truly delight; it cannot risk anything, even as it pleads with people to remember the daring risks of children who were unafraid to make believe.
Morrison sounds great, as does the rest of the cast. They’re all quite mature, that is, and how are a bunch of grownups supposed to find Neverland? Lowbrow jokes and pratfalls are as close as they can come; one wonders when they’ll find the wonder Finding Neverland is so sorely lacking.