Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer, and Laura Michelle Kelly return to Broadway in this new musical about how J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan.
An enchanting evening awaits audiences at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, the kind of magical experience that transforms adults back into children, and turns kids on to a lifetime of theatergoing. It's called Finding Neverland, a new musical inspired by the 2004 Johnny Depp-Kate Winslet film of the same title. Directed with heaps of fairy dust by Diane Paulus (after premiering last fall at Boston's American Repertory Theater), it's a work that simultaneously hearkens back to the megamusicals of the 1980s, while injecting that subgenre with a contemporary spin. And chances are, audiences are in for a nice cathartic cry.
Finding Neverland explores the Scottish author J.M. Barrie's relationship with four fatherless boys and their widowed mother, and the way that friendship inspired him to create one of history's most enduring characters, Peter Pan. Barrie (Matthew Morrison) was mentally adrift when he met the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her lads. New plays of his, produced by the American theatrical impresario Charles Frohman (five-time Emmy winner Kelsey Grammer), were tanking; his marriage, to the social-climbing Mary (Teal Wicks), was loveless; and writer's block had set in. So when Jack (Christopher Paul Richards), George (Sawyer Nunes), and Michael (Alex Dreier) come running up to him in Kensington Park, Barrie is more than happy to join in their game of pirates. (Multiple young actors rotate in the roles of the Llewelyn Davies children.)
There's one child who doesn't join in their game, their brother Peter (Aidan Gemme), who's having an especially hard time dealing with the recent death of their father, and Barrie sees in him a kindred spirit, a soul that needs to recapture its youth through the boundlessness of imagination. In Sylvia, Barrie sees a romantic match, despite the protestations of her old-world mother, Mrs. Du Maurier (Carolee Carmello), and Frohman, afraid that a married man palling around with a widow and her children would be unseemly to theatrical patrons. Suddenly, with a little help from an imaginary hook-handed pal, the ideas start flowing.
Unlike so many of the screen-to-stage transfers we've seen, this Finding Neverland is not a mere remake with songs. Book writer James Graham uses the film as a jumping-off point, beefing up the connection between Barrie and Sylvia (what musical could be without a love story?) and adding a number of fantasy sequences for Barrie to get in touch with the characters yearning to break free from his mind.
If characters in musicals are supposed to start singing only when they've reached a point where talking no longer suffices emotionally, then Finding Neverland is as old-school as it gets. But the songwriters — Gary Barlow (formerly of the U.K. boy band Take That) and Grammy winner Eliot Kennedy — have some tricks up their sleeves. They've injected the Victorian atmosphere with a dose of the modern in the form of pop music — a crazy idea that actually works like a charm. While the writers have a tendency to veer into the banal and aren't as adept at creating true rhymes as they are at crafting soaring melodies, the songs tear into our hearts the way all good love songs should. The upbeat numbers, such as the uproarious tribute to childhood games, "Play," are infectious in their vivacity.
In his first Broadway appearance since the 2009 start of Glee, Morrison proves he hasn't lost his chops, delivering a well-sung and intriguingly internalized performance, one where you can see the confusion and anger simmering inside until he finally explodes. Kelly is both tender and touching, and gives the musical its heart. Grammer, who is particularly droll as Frohman, delightfully takes on a swashbuckling surprise cameo at the end of the first act. Carmello and Wicks, musical theater vets with voices astonishing beyond belief, are severely underused. The four Llewelyn Davies boys are quite endearing.
Design-wise, the ace creative team also adopts the artful stylistic mash-up of old and new. Scott Pask's imaginative set, which utilizes projections by Jon Driscoll, blends a realistic rendering of 1904 England with the fragmented goings-on in Barrie's head. Attractive costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb re-create Victorian suits and bustle dresses, while also keenly reimagining the iconic garb worn by Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Kenneth Posner gives us a master class in transitioning noir-style cinematic lighting for the stage. The choreography, by So You Think You Can Dance Emmy winner Mia Michaels, is a fascinating study in the eccentric.
Finding Neverland is never better than when Paulus and her illusions team create honest-to-god magic through pure theatricality. These moments are not only transcendent in their beauty, but also nearly impossible to do justice through words. No matter how seasoned a theatergoer you are, Finding Neverland feels like experiencing your first Broadway show all over again, and you'll never forget it.