The world premiere musical FINDING NEVERLAND now playing at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge is part magic and mostly schlock– which might be a recipe for a Broadway smash (It’s headed there in March 2015) but left me hungry for the production I believe it can be. The show is based on the 2004 film and the play by Allan Knee called THE MAN WHO WAS PETER PAN about Scottish novelist/playwright J.M.Barrie who meets a widow and her four little boys. They inspire the playwright to create his most famous work, escape a claustrophobic marriage, and heal a family tragedy from his past.
It’s a great premise for a show– a play within a play, an opportunity to explore the place where reality and imagination intersect, love, loss, childhood and dreams. Director Diane Paulus has given us a beautifully staged production– exquisite sets, costumes, and at one climactic moment an effect so exquisitely poignant– it brought me to tears. She has also assembled a fantastically talented and charismatic cast–handsome, golden voiced Jeremy Jordan as the stifled playwright who lets loose and Laura Michelle Kelly as the beautiful widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies who’s eager to let her hair down.
The problems are many. First, there’s little reality for the magic to play off, and there’s a miscalculation in tone. PETER PAN, as GB Shaw observed, is ostensibly a children’s entertainment, but really for adults. FINDING NEVERLAND’s book by James Graham sells the grown ups short. In one of the very first numbers, Barrie’s home life is made to look silly and his wife Mary is a ridiculous caricature. (Jeanna de Waal cuts a surprisingly elegant figure in this thankless role.) She does a whole number on rearranging the furniture, with servants cartwheeling around the stage like circus freaks or a Disney cartoon. Great choreography by Mia Michaels here is often in service of next to nothing. This and several numbers don’t feel rooted to the action in any meaningful way or are staged out of all proportion to what’s merited by the scene.
The songs– by British singer/songwriter/producers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy– careen awkwardly from lumpy English oompah music hall, to warmed-over pop with cliched lyrics commanding us to “live for today” and “be yourself.” One number “Circus of Your Mind” is a dead ringer for Michel Legrand’s Oscar winning song “The Windmills of Your Mind” (homage or plagiarism?) and is an excuse for another overblown production number with the cast cavorting Vegas-like while wielding silver carousel poles. Another number suggests the raucous tavern scene from “Les Mis,” only this time an apparently dimwitted troupe of actors is just discovering that “to put on a play” means “to play.” Duh.
Nothing in the action feels crucial; it’s all empty “show.” When a painful incident from Barrie’s past is revealed– it feels like it comes out of nowhere. I cringed. And when there is a good song like “Neverland” or “Sylvia’s Lullaby” with absolutely gorgeous staging and vocals– it feels unearned. How about giving those four boys a pretty air in four part harmony to sing instead of the shapeless, lumbering tune that weighs down “We’re all Made of Stars.” How about giving young Peter lyrics that a real boy who’s just lost a parent might sing instead of the adult platitudes he’s made to deliver in “When your Feet Don’t Touch The Ground.”
Shockingly, despite all my complaints, there were moments I was absolutely, suddenly transported. The romantic duet that Barrie and Sylvia sing on a lonely stage by “ghost”light–was magic. And the star-dappled, translucent staging during the haunting “Neverland Reprise” where, miraculously, and against all imagining, the show stopped me dead in my tracks as the Acting Troupe and real life characters and all of the show’s themes– life, death, love, dreams– came together in a penultimate sequence of profound, ethereal enchantment–HOW DID THEY DO THAT? There IS magic in FINDING NEVERLAND. More than what they’ve conjured so far. I believe.
At the A.R.T. through September 28.