Monday, August 18, 2014

Never, Never: Finding Neverland


Under Diane Paulus’ leadership, Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater – once a bastion of the avant-garde – has become a clearing house for Broadway-bound shows. In the two years since she took over as artistic director, Paulus has sent five plays on to New York: her own revivals of Porgy and Bess and Pippin; Once (which began as a workshop at A.R.T.); the latest revival of The Glass Menagerie, starring Cherry Jones; and the first part of Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ biography, All the Way (which began its journey across the country at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). I saw all of them in their A.R.T. incarnations except for Once, and they were all sell-outs; Boston is evidently thrilled to be a tryout town once again, as it was for most of the last century. But even though I didn’t care for most of the productions I saw at A.R.T. in its old form, Paulus’ blatant commercialism is a little unsettling, especially since two of the shows bore her name as director.

Her latest is Finding Neverland, a musical adaptation of the 2004 movie that covers the period during which J.M. Barrie conceived his 1904 stage play Peter Pan. If you watched the Tony Awards this year you already know about the show, because – in that benighted telecast’s most bizarre moment – we were treated to a preview of the musical, which opens on Broadway next season: Jennifer Hudson sang one of the tunes to four little boys standing in for the Llewelyn-Davies brothers for whom Barrie becomes a surrogate father. Appearances notwithstanding, Hudson is not expected to take over the role of James Barrie, which is being played by Newsies star Jeremy Jordan.

And though she staged the musical, Paulus isn’t front and centre in the entertainment news stories; producer Harvey Weinstein, who’s shepherding the show to Broadway, is. He was behind the original version of the musical, which opened last year in Leicester, England with a book by Allan Knee – who wrote The Man Who Was Peter Pan, the 1998 play that provided the source for the film – songs by Scott Frankel and Michael Korle (Grey Gardens, Far from Heaven) and direction and choreography by Rob Ashford. But Weinstein wasn’t satisfied with the results, so he fired everyone and started from scratch. The current version has a book by James Graham (The House) and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, pop songwriters and producers who had never written a score for the musical theatre before. The choreography is by Mia Michaels, best known for her work on the TV show So You Think You Can Dance. I have no source for comparison beyond a rather pretty ballad from the Frankel-Korle score a friend found on YouTube, but what is now called Finding Neverland is dreadful.

It would surprise me to learn that the Leicester attempt worked either; this seems like a hopeless project. The movie had its own shortcomings, though Johnny Depp’s intimate, impassioned pressed-violet portrayal of Barrie conferred genuine distinction on it. It’s a sentimentalized treatment of Barrie’s private life, presenting his marriage to the beauteous Mary (Radha Mitchell) as a mismatch of temperaments: she’s a conventional woman who seeks the comforts of high society, while he has a yen for privacy and is uninterested in public life. When he makes the acquaintance of Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies (Kate Winslet), a widow with four boys, he’s drawn into a friendship with them that is highly unconventional by Edwardian standards. Barrie fills in the gap for the boys their father’s death has made – and especially for the youngest, Peter (the vivid young Freddie Highmore), who is initially the hardest sell, the most embittered and cynical. And though he falls in love with Sylvia, their never-quite-a-romance is star-crossed, at first because of his marriage and then because she turns out to be dying of consumption.

The real story is much more unusual. Barrie had no sexual interests; he was a stunted child, which explains both his ability to produce a children’s literary classic and his relationship with the Llewelyn-Davies boys. But it’s hard to imagine how to dramatize his story for a modern audience without invoking the wrong vibrations – that is, without making him look like a pedophile, which he apparently was not. By throwing in a scene where Barrie’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle (Ian Hart) cautions him that the time he spends with Sylvia’s children has given rise to the most evil sort of gossip, the movie intends clearly to block off that road of inquiry for the audience. And the filmmakers have another explanation to put in its place: his feelings for Sylvia. The movie’s retooled version of Barrie’s life shortchanges Mitchell, who’s stuck playing a character the movie has no use for and whose perspective it doesn’t respect. That seems unfair. It’s hardly Mary’s fault that she’s inherited the priorities of her entire society, and how is she supposed to comprehend her husband’s lack of interest in her and all the time he spends with Sylvia’s family? Sylvia’s equally conventional and far more willful mother, Emma du Maurier, isn’t allowed to be likable either, but Julie Christie, who plays her, is such a commanding presence that she makes her formidable, so it doesn’t matter so much that she isn’t likable. And though Winslet is good, she’s essentially miscast as a wilting flower.

Though the Peter Pan material is subjugated to the romantic story, the movie handles it with adeptness. There’s some second-rate stuff – Topsy-Turvy seconds – involving the nervousness of Barrie’s producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman, underplaying cannily) about sinking his money into a big-budget theatrical fairy tale, but what we see of the actual performance, with Kelly MacDonald as Peter, is charming. Since Sylvia is ailing and can’t come to the opening, James brings the company to her home for a private performance. But what the director, Marc Forster, and the screenwriter, David Magee, show us is a parade of fairyland creatures who draw her into the garden to “find Neverland.” The dramatic explanation for what we see is (more or less) that Forster is capturing the way she experiences the play, which is the way David Lynch shoots the performance in John Merrick’s honor in The Elephant Man, but the play in Finding Neverland is also meant as a metaphor for what Barrie has brought to Sylvia’s life – too late, unhappily, for her to enjoy it for long. Forster’s earlier attempts in the picture at this kind of high-style interlude don’t work, but this one is magical. It’s a mistake, I think, to keep the movie going for another fifteen minutes past this point, through Sylvia’s death (which we know is coming) and a trite scene where Barrie promises Peter he’s going to act as his father (which we don’t need to have explained to us). Once again – as in the Conan Doyle scene – the filmmakers are overanxious about losing their audience, and in strictly commercial terms they’re being smart. But I’d feel better about the movie if it took a few more chances.

The stage musical follows the film’s narrative quite closely, but everything is simplified – I’d say cartoonized, since what Weinstein is clearly after is a big-budget Disney musical. Mary (Jeanna De Waal) isn’t merely unappealing; she’s a caricature who cares more about the success of her latest dinner party than about her husband. The high-stepping Barrie domestics engage with her in a number called “Rearranging the Furniture” that is obviously meant to recall “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. When the entire Llewelyn-Davies clan shows up for Mary’s party – she’s anxious to get the distinguished du Maurier (Carolee Carmello), whose presence will boost her social status, to her table – James plays a fantasy game with Sylvia (Laura Michelle Kelly) and the boys (Alex Dreier, Hayden Signoretti, Sawyer Nunes and Aida Gemme as Peter) in the form of a song, “We Own the Night,” which harks back to the “I Love to Laugh” number from the movie Mary Poppins. (Kelly, not so coincidentally, played Mary Poppins in the West End stage version.) This set piece is a head-scratcher; I couldn’t work out what was supposed to be happening for real and what was in the characters’ minds – and in all of their minds at the same time?

The show is way beyond parsing; there’s no evidence that anyone’s brain was turned on when this damn thing was put together. Ideas are introduced and then dropped. Peter’s grief over the loss of his father has made him pragmatic, suspicious of fantasy, but that prejudice lasts for less for a scene; it barely carries into the “Believe” number, Barrie’s first with the boys. Frohman (Michael McGrath) reads the script for Peter Pan and declares that it’s a fairy tale without a villain, so James – his eye on Frohman’s cane, which he waves around like a sword – comes up with the idea of Captain Hook. That’s a funny bit, but at the end of act one Hook (McGrath, whose impersonation of the pirate is the show’s indisputable highlight) emerges out of James’ id and proclaims that he’s the dark side James has been denying, and they perform the duet “Stronger,” which is a direct steal from “Defying Gravity,” the first-act finale of Wicked. And that’s the last we hear of Barrie’s channeling his inner demons to create Hook; in act two we learn (via the intuitive Peter) that he’s really Peter Pan.

The only number I enjoyed was “Play,” which James and Sylvia and the actors perform at a pub after a rehearsal. The rest of Michaels’ hyperactive choreography belongs on a TV variety show (if it belongs anywhere); she doesn’t make so much as a pass at invoking the era, and the Barlow-Kennedy songs are a soft-pop wash. No one bothered to check for anachronisms, so the characters often use vernacular that wasn’t invented until the end of the twentieth century (or later). And really, how vigilant do you have to be to prevent one of the actors from mouthing “What the fuck?” at a moment of frustration? There are other glaring errors. Mary complains to James that his guests ruined her fancy dinner party, but aside from Sylvia, her mother and her boys there’s exactly one invitee. She’s so pissed at her husband that she banishes him from her bed – while all the servants are lined up waiting for their orders. How many minutes of Downton Abbey would you have to watch to know that proper Edwardian ladies and gentlemen don’t stage family arguments revealing intimate sexual details in front of the domestics?

The first act of Finding Neverland is such a mishmash of terrible ideas that it’s rather fascinating; by contrast, act two made my eyes glaze over, except for “Play.” Maybe I just got used to the show’s level of awfulness, but it drags on interminably. When the company of Peter Pan comes around to the Llewelyn-Davies manse to perform for Sylvia and the boys, we get a fifteen-minute précis of the play that (a) is entirely unnecessary and (b) stalls the final curtain until 10:45 p.m. And at nearly three hours, the musical still can’t be what Harvey Weinstein wanted: a big, showy, expensive show for the family audience. That’s because, as everyone knows who’s seen the movie, Sylvia dies at the end. Graham tries to negotiate with the material by delaying any mention of her illness until midway through the second act, but her tell-tale coughs in act one are almost hilariously sinister, like Carol Burnett coughing on her honeymoon with Harvey Korman in her famous parody of Love Story. For all its Disneyfication, It’s hard to imagine anyone taking little kids to see the musical of Finding Neverland.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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