I’m typically a very easy-going theatregoer. Most of the time, I find something to like about a show and manage to pretend that the bad things about the production never happened. A testament to this is the fact that I loved The Little Mermaid, while everyone else called it abysmal. Granted, I was 10 years old and totally biased, but I was ready to write a letter to Ben Brantley telling him that his review was unjust. Even as a more learned theatre student, I manage to see the good in shows rather than the plethora of bad. However, the only show that I think deserved it’s absolutely brutal review is Finding Neverland. What a mess.
Finding Neverland put a bad taste in my mouth the minute I walked into the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. It happens to be a funny coincidence that the same theatre housed The Little Mermaid in 2008. For starters, the show curtain was an absolute eyesore. That should have been the first indication as to how ill the show’s aesthetics went along with the story and time period. It was this ugly floral pattern filled with psychedelic pinks and blues and reds. I couldn’t look at it for too long. One minute of looking at the curtain equaled to staring at a computer screen for at least three hours. I think I turned to my neighbor and said that the curtain would have gone better with a Broadway musical about Coachella (a joke that I felt supremely proud of in the moment).
Whatever the production team of Finding Neverland was trying to achieve just did not work. The story set in the 20th century, deserved music and choreography that matched its Victorian period setting. In the opening scene, the female ensemble members were wearing gorgeously constructed costumes, but were participating in incredibly modern dancing. I had hope that it would redeem itself, but it only became worse. I understand trying to construct a contemporary musical, but the production team should have taken a look at A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder; in a period piece, every choice must reflect the period. If they wanted to keep the mystical element of the show, they should have kept it for the portions that were in “Neverland” where anything can happen. They clearly were trying to make the show into something it was not. It isn’t a well-done spectacle, like The Phantom of the Opera, nor is it a drama, like Les Miserables. However, I almost expected Matthew Morrison to break into “Stars” while angst-ily bemoaning his fate on a bridge. Or was he in the middle of the water; I couldn’t tell.
Yes, the whole point of the musical was to “Believe” (as the cheesy song that the cast now performs on every morning talk show suggests), but there’s only so far I (and many other people) can suspend their disbelief. I am not going to believe that you’re living in 19th century England while you’re singing a pop song. J.M. Barrie and Sylvia’s love duet was the score’s biggest blunder. There should have been a lush love song in place of the pop number they performed. I swear I have heard something just like it on the radio before.
Another issue I had was how fast paced and thin the book was. There were a lot of things that I wanted or needed to be explained that it neglected to do. It felt as though they cut out a large chunk of what was important, mainly pertaining to Sylvia’s death (spoiler alert). I knew something was up when she began coughing in the first act, but her death came totally out of nowhere. All of the sudden she was having a coughing fit that came almost entirely unprecedented. What could have been better was fleshing that out. Perhaps they could have given her a solo in order to vent out her plight. Just kidding about that, actually. That would have meant we’d have to endure another awful pop ballad that the musical director could not decide on whether it should be sung in head voice or chest voice.
My final issue with the show is Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer’s casting. While the rest of the cast was pulling their weight, you could tell that neither of them actually cared about being onstage. They were simply going through the motions with the knowledge that at the end of the night, they’re still getting a hefty paycheck that would add to their already hefty bank accounts. I thought Matthew Morrison was great in South Pacific and sung the score of The Light in the Piazza beautifully. However, both roles were pre Glee and pre stardom and it felt like he was relying on his star power to carrying him through the show, not his talent or his techniques.
The same went for Grammer; he was great in La Cage aux Folies, but he was more of a prop than a performer in his role of the theatre producer/Captain Hook (not to mention his Hook costume was a mediocre attempt). Perhaps both of their performances were lackluster because Finding Neverland was not constructed to be a musical, but a moneymaking machine.
(Peter Pan plus Glee plus a shameless “Cheers” joke for the parents in the audience happen to be the perfect combination, as the show has been making bank.) The theatre community gives Disney a lot of crap for commercializing Broadway, but at least it has heart majority of the time and the actors care about being onstage. So, Harvey Weinstein, you can take your theology of owning Broadway and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine. The only one who actually cared about being onstage was the adorable dog that barely got enough stage time.