NEW YORK (AP) — At a recent performance on Broadway of "Finding Neverland," one young boy showed up in a very green Peter Pan costume and accessorized it with cowboy boots. It was an apt outfit for a show that is exuberant, quirky and somewhat conflicted about what it wants to be.
The musical, which opened Wednesday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, welcomes back to Broadway a super Matthew Morrison and the consummate pro Kelsey Grammer to tell the origin story of "Peter Pan," but the result is less than effortless. It's a celebration of imagination that labors hard for a consistent tone and often leaves you feeling manipulated.
The show, directed by Diane Paulus with her usual high metabolism for pleasing spectacle, is an adaptation from the 2004 whimsical film of the same name about a widow whose four young sons inspired J.M. Barrie to write the children's classic "Peter Pan."
Morrison, who played choir director Will Schuester on "Glee," plays Barrie; Grammer plays Barrie's theatrical producer and, in dream sequences, a fearsome Captain Hook; Laura Michelle Kelly is the widow; and Carolee Carmello plays her mother. All are first-rate, as are the four boys, led by Aidan Gemme as Peter during one press performance.
British playwright James Graham's story is part Edwardian melodrama, part love story, part origin story, part valentine to invention and part send-up of the theater itself. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just that each has its own tone. Sometimes Graham is deadly earnest, sometimes he's sly and often he's just trying too hard at both.
"Finding Neverland" awkwardly juggles parental death and divorce and puts them in a Disney show that Disney long ago stopped making. There's a live dog, a "Cheers" joke for Grammer that's funny but breaks the fourth wall, a fog machine on overdrive and a full-sized man in a bear costume riding a tricycle — never a good sign.
When the show is working on all cylinders, it's absolutely thrilling. The propulsive Act One closing song "Stronger," in which Barrie chooses to man up and be a pirate himself, could easily be the closing song at an Iron Maiden concert. The scene when Kelly departs in a swirl of wind machine-fed sparkles to the musical's title song is pure understated brilliance.
The music and lyrics by both Gary Barlow of the pop band Take That, and songwriter and producer Eliot Kennedy, lean on soaring pop melodies and lilting Irish folk. Some hit — "When Your Feet Don't Touch the Ground" — and some don't — "All That Matters." Some are middling artifacts of a different era, like "Believe."
"Finding Neverland" gets off to a slow start and takes a detour into the surreal by the fifth song when Barrie invites everyone — except the pompous and rich — into his mind for some dancing and singing. It's a bold and great scene but that story-telling technique is quickly abandoned. Maybe the dude in the bear costume snatched it.
Another bold element is too late in arriving. Captain Hook, who we are told is Barrie's alter ego, makes his appearance on page 65 of the script, a shame for such a rich source of material (and a glorious scene-stealer in Grammer).
Much of choreographer Mia Michaels' work here is exciting. Instead of much wire work, her dancers lift and carry others like puppets, or pop up like trout in a river, or use their environment to shimmy and move like rag dolls.
There's also a weird obsession with time — clocks feature prominently in Scott Pask's messy set design and John Driscoll's underwhelming projections, including a park bench studded with them for reasons that aren't clear. The song "Play," in which actors who play actors act out nursery rhymes in a tavern is nifty, but out of place.
A decision seems to have been made to paper over any gaps in the show's coherence by backing up a truckload of pixie dust and pumping it into the theater. It also desperately wants you to cry with a series of false endings that will have you exhausted. "Finding Neverland" has some great performances but never finds its groove.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits