This show initially seemed like another of those inexplicably critic-proof disasters like Young Frankenstein, The Addams Family or Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but when you actually see it in the theater, it proves to be more of a semi-respectable guilty pleasure in the vein of the early Frank Wildhorn shows. It’s far from flawless, but it has more than enough positive qualities to explain, and possibly even justify, its massive success.
I was extremely skeptical when I heard that Gary Barlow, the singer-songwriter behind the British Pop band Take That, was hired to write the music for an adaptation of the film Finding Neverland. Not that Take That are a bad band by any means, but this material seemed to call more for an ethereal, atmospheric composer, like an Adam Guettel or a Ricky Ian Gordon, and I wasn’t convinced that this purveyor of Pop tunes was up to the task of capturing the necessary atmospheric richness. To my surprise, the score is easily the best thing about the show as a composition. The songs aren’t totally without the retro-sounding cheesiness associated with Barlow’s pop songs, but they are admirably up to the job of meeting the emotional and atmospheric needs of the story, and many of them are simply lovely as music alone. “Neverland”, “All That Matters”, “What You Mean To Me”, and the devastating “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” are every bit as ravishing and moving as the loveliest songs from far more critically acclaimed musicals of the last few years. The thrilling “Believe”, the crescendoing first-act finale “Stronger”, and the joyous ensemble number “Play”, with its dizzying Irish jig feeling, are the showstoppers, but the sprightly tango “We Own the Night” and the optimistic credo “We’re All Made of Stars” are also lovely.
The book poses more of a problem, and explains why the show’s critical reception was less than stellar. Whenever the show tries to be funny, the results are disastrous…these jokes are about on a par with the ones in the Broadway version of Dance of the Vampires. But the thing is, this is a story that was going to be moving no matter what they did with it, and the serious portions of the book, while a bit too gloomy to match the audience’s preconceived notions of Peter Pan, actually do a very successful job of pushing the necessary emotional buttons.
The staging is also an enormous help, featuring a string of increasingly exquisite stage tableaus…in particular, the scene where the dying love interest is shown flying off to Neverland is such an utterly perfect fusion of drama, staging and music that it could justify the whole show on its own. It also didn’t hurt that the cast was luminous…Broadway legend Matthew Morrison chose this role for his return to Broadway after the cancellation of Glee, and Kelsey Grammer and his replacements Terrence Mann and Marc Kudisch, playing the dual role of a theatrical producer and the embodiment of the hero’s dark side as represented by Captain Hook, played their roles with panache and did quite a bit to make up with sheer personality for the terrible jokes they were given.
This isn’t a sophisticated show, and it got a lot of negative press on its release (I believe one person dubbed it “Peter Pandering”), but there’s room on Broadway for both ultra-sophisticated showpieces like Fun Home and Hamilton and simple, basic appeals to emotion like this one, and the show is oddly satisfying as theater. In any case, it’s worth noting that everyone expected this show to sink like a stone and it has someone managed to stay afloat, so audiences must be seeing something in it, and between the score, the staging, the performances, and the sheer emotional impact of the story itself, I just might be leaning toward their attitude on the subject myself.