First Nighter: Flying Off Course While 'Finding Neverland'

04/15/2015 10:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

The story of how J. M. Barrie's friendship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her sons Peter, Jack, George and Michael led to the classic Peter Pan is a sweet one, which was tributed in Allen Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan and the 2004 film Finding Neverland. Now Harvey Weinstein, who produced the movie, brings it to Broadway and the Lunt-Fontanne as a musical.

The tuner has prompted vast coverage as it made its way from London to the Manhattan destination, and it would be a pleasure to say that all the difficulties stirred up as impresario Weinstein piloted this one in has resulted in a whopper of show. Not to be. With Matthew Morrison as Barrie, Kelsey Grammer as his longtime theater producer Charles Frohman, current script by James Graham and current score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, it's at best a treasure chest of only mixed delights. (The librettist and songwriters for the earlier London production were let go with much attendant publicity and possibly tidy severance checks.)

It's not that the present cast and production creative team aren't working up to high levels. Morrison as a successful playwright dry of ideas but thick with Scottish accent is earnest and sturdy as he befriends the now fatherless and therefore somewhat lost Llewelyn Davies boys. Grammer is an affable American expat adorning the London stage with Wilde, Shaw and Barrie and serving as a model for Captain Hook. Laura Michelle Kelly is appealing as a widow trying to raise her sons to the best of her ability. The Llewelyn Davies boys -- played at the performance I saw by Christopher Paul Richards, Sawyer Nunes, Alex Dreier and especially Aidan Gemme as the Peter who lends his name to the averse-to-growing up Barrie hero -- have charm to spare.

Set designer Scott Pask, costumer Suttirat Anne Larlarb, lighting designer Kenneth Posner, sound designer Jonathan Deans and projections designer Jon Driscoll (is there a musical nowadays that doesn't rely heavily on projections?) work hard for a generally positive payoff. Less so choreographer Mia Michaels, whose dancers do a lot of jumping up and down and back-bending to little reward. Their first workout -- as a haughty London opening night throng -- must have them rubbing the liniment on heavily the second they leave the stage.

To give credit where it's due, the Finding Neverland kick-off has great promise. A Tinkerbelle spark darts about even before the curtains are pulled back. When they are, Melanie Moore is revealed as a spinning Peter Pan appearing to Barrie as he broods on a park bench about his writer's block.

The expectations raised, however, begin dissipating slowly and then accelerates as Graham's libretto takes its time in exposition. (Graham is the same dramatist whose first-rate play This House brightened London's National Theatre a few years back and deserves to be imported.) Almost immediately, Barrie is surrounded by the Llewelyn Davies boys pretending to be pirates. From then on little hints at eventual Peter Pan ingredients are dropped, popped and plopped into the action.

Peter Llewelyn Davies is a boy who wants very much to grow up and is therefore losing out at childhood. And on it goes. Barrie owns the shaggy dog Porthos (played by shaggy dog Jack), who eventually is the model for -- you guessed it -- Nana. Everyone knows that authors draw for their visions from the world they observe, but with this Barrie it happens so, uh, doggedly.

To gussy up the proceedings, Graham, Barlow, Kennedy and director Diane Paulus, relying on her Pippin-like circus instincts, turn to all sorts of diversions. One of the fussiest is Frohman's acting troupe. They behave like something from Charles Dickens but diluted and cheapened in the transition. For example, reluctant to perform in the radically different first Peter Pan production, they balk but are bucked up in a number that incorporates familiar nursery rhymes. Curiously, when one of them gets to "London Bridge is falling down," the words "my fair lady" are cut off. You don't need to wonder why.

Nevertheless, that's probably the best Finding Neverland number, whereas the worst is the first-act closer. Called "Stronger," it has Morrison as Barrie realize his power to write Peter Pan. It strikes him as a pirate ship, complete with rigging, materializes around him. He ends standing high above the stage wielding a sword. Were Basrrie alive to see it for himself, what might he have thought of this overwrought image?

Since this is a musical, the score is the biggest disappointment. Barlow and Kennedy, both alumni of Take That, the hot '90s British boy group -- apparently never having written for the stage before -- have listened closely to Oliver! and Mary Poppins but applied loose craftsmanship to, particularly, the lyrics. Off-rhymes have become increasingly acceptable in Top 40 realms, but only come across as lazy in a period piece such as Finding Neverland. For an example, in one song "rhyme" is rhymed with "mind." That's right. They don't even bother to rhyme "rhyme."

Barlow and Kennedy don't have much better luck or skill with the ballads they need to contrive when Barrie -- whose marriage to Mary (Teal Wicks) falls apart -- finds himself in love with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. They can organize '90s power ballads but not imbue them with anything that clings to the memory once the last full notes fade.

Weinstein has certainly toiled industriously to render the movie he produced into a hit. Maybe the hordes of Peter Pan fans will turn it into one. If not, here's a suggestion for him: Lewis Carroll (Lewis Dodson) began Alice in Wonderland as an entertainment for the sisters Alice, Edith and Lorina Liddell. That 1860s situation couldn't parallel Barrie's 1890s serendipity more closely.

Perhaps Weinstein might have a more rewarding time morphing that piece of literary history into a musical -- turning thank heaven for little boys into another case of thank heaven for little girls. (Without, of course, appropriating the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe Gigi opener.) The title's ready and waiting: Finding Wonderland.