Musicals, to most, are a gamble. You will either love them or hate them, there is truly no in-between. One of those shows that left me truly on the edge of decision was one of the new offerings from the Spring 2015 season: Finding Neverland. Considered by many to be one of the weirder productions of the bunch, the story of Peter Pan’s creator J.M. Barrie and his journey from down on his luck playwright to fulfilled father figure took some major Word of Mouth to get me interested in investing my ticket money in. But I can say with ease, it was a decision I would never regret.
Finding Neverland is based on the 2004 fantasy-bio flick starring Johnny Depp about the creation of the tale of Peter Pan. it introduces the family that inspired Peter Pan’s author to make a come back onto the scene and create one of the most famous stories of all time. In the musical, Barrie is played by Matthew Morrison, who you probably will know from his stint on Ryan Murphy’s GLEE. Clearly, Morrison is no stranger to musical theater. But the question many had upon hearing the news of his casting was, could he pull it off? The same could be said of his fellow cast members and creative team, including new additions Anthony Warlow (Annie) and movie producer Harvey Weinstein.
I can say that Morrison, and the entire team involved, do pull off the biggest magical trick of all: believing in the material. This is a story that, if placed in the wrong hands, could easily result in failure in both material and presentation. But somehow, this odd ball mixture of talent has resulted in a beautiful, new whimsical family friendly production, one that goes perfectly in hand with Disney Theatrical’s works, and even rivals some of their recent creations.
Though that is not to say everything on the stage is of the caliber of the Mouse House’s classic shows. This is especially clear in the flow of the songs featured. Finding Neverland is an interesting case, where it has been “in many hands” musically. The musical originally was to be handled in the song department by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics). As the production changed, it eventually fell into the lap of Gary Barlow, who wrote 22 new songs, and lyrics were then given to Eliot Kennedy.
What this results in is a truly bizarre musical journey, one full of truly beautiful highs, and some truly low lows. The (fittingly) strongest piece in the show is the Act I Finale piece, “Stronger,” in which Barrie discovers his inner pirate and the inspiration for Captain Hook. The other song that makes another “strong” case for brilliance is the title tune, which is reprised perfectly within the last few minutes of the story. The rest of the score is mostly forgettable, with a few exceptions that desperately wish they were part of Meat Loaf’s greatest hits rather than in a family friendly musical.
But what truly is the star of this show is the special effects. Not since Wicked have I seen a show that really gets how to bring the magic of its story, and of the film on which it is based, to life. From the opening flutter of the famous Tinkerbell, to the finale, involving a true cloud of pixie dust, Finding Neverland never stops bringing its visuals to the forefront, choreography and all. If only the team that had worked on this show had been given the reigns of other fairy tale stories like Aladdin, which truly deserved this level of sparkle and true magic.
Finding Neverland is the kind of show that, though it might not be the greatest musical ever written, deserves praise in many aspects. It has brought a decidedly missing bit of whimsy to The Great White Way, and fulfills a void in the Lunt Fontanne Theatre that has been there since the departure of Beauty and the Beast. Magical, charming, and beautiful, Finding Neverland brings back the grand and majestic ’90s theatrical feeling to the very yawn-inducing tourist market of Broadway, and hopefully it’ll be here to stay for some time.
Finding Neverland is currently playing at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre.
Side Note: The performance I was in attendance for was Anthony Warlow’s last in the production. Terrance Mann is now taking over his role as Captain Hook, and I guess I’m going to be making a second visit to the Lunt Fontanne sooner than I thought. Mr. Warlow, you were brilliant, and Mr. Mann, I can’t wait to see what magic you have up your sleeve.