So, the new semester at The Boston Conservatory has officially begun. Now I get to see how well I'm going to be able to keep up with my posts on About.com, my reviews of the new Broadway and Off-Broadway seasons, and the inevitable mountain of papers to grade. Stay tuned.
Here are my most recent posts for About.com. They've proven very popular on the site, particularly the ones on classic musicals and musicals that changed Broadway. Let me know what you think.
As I mentioned a while back, I picked up a new gig writing for About.com as the Musical and Theater Expert. I was hoping that the gig wouldn't interfere with my blogging, and so far that has actually been the case. As to whether this will continue as the school year starts up, well, stay tuned.
I'll still be publishing most of my reviews here on my blog, while at About.com I'll be posting more evergreen stuff about theatergoing in general. One review that I decided to post on About.com was for my recent revisit to The Phantom of the Opera with its new stars, Norm Lewis and Sierra Boggess. Here's a link to that review, as well as to the rest of my About.com postings for August.
1. What musical is the following lyric from? 2. Which character is singing? 3. What is this character singing about?
All that matters now Is where we go from here. There's an easier way If we live for today. The singing in my heart Is all that matters.
Well, you can probably tell from the title of this review, as well as the accompanying artwork, that we're talking about the new Broadway-bound musical Finding Neverland. The character singing is named Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, played memorably by Kate Winslet in the 2004 movie of the same name. And the character is singing about...well...I really have no idea. Therein lies one of the major liabilities of Finding Neverland in its current form: You could hear the entire score and still not really understand what was going on in the show.
When the first announcements appeared about Finding Neverland becoming a musical, the composer and lyricist were to be Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, respectively. After multiple readings and productions, Frankel and Korie were suddenly no longer attached. We may never know how the show would have fared with Frankel and Korie, but based on my experience with their previous work (Grey Gardens, Happiness, Far From Heaven), I have to conclude that the show would have been significantly more intelligent, tuneful, integrated, and original than the uninspired concoction that is currently playing at the American Repertory Theatre.
As anyone who's seen the original movie knows, Finding Neverland concerns playwright J.M. Barrie and his relationship with a young widow and her four boys, who inspire him to write his best-known work, Peter Pan. It's a wonderful idea for a musical, and there are brief moments in the current show that hint at the magic that could have been. Most of these come in the form of stagecraft, as at the end of the show when Sylvia makes her most significant transition. Powerful fans emerge in a circle in the center of the stage, which create a whirlwind of golden glitter, a gorgeous moment that brings the stories of the musical and Peter Pan together in a stunning coup de théâtre.
In between these rare moments of wonder, we must contend with an inferior score and a merely serviceable book. Producer Harvey Weinstein replaced Frankel and Korie with musical-theater neophytes Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy (music and lyrics together). Their lack of musical-theater experience shows, partly in the overabundance of slant rhyme, poor scansion, and forced extra syllables, but also in their tin-eared, derivative contemporary musical style. The only decent song in the entire score is "Neverland," although you'd never know it from Jennifer's Hudson's riffando version on the Tony Awards. Add in James Graham's bald-faced dialogue and ham-fisted plot exposition, and we have a musical that would seem more fitting for The Disney Channel than the legitimate Broadway stage.
Barlow and Kennedy also show their inexperience in their choice of moments to musicalize. The third number in the show, when I saw it in previews, was a rather odd number for J.M. Barrie's wife, called "Rearrange the Furniture," which is pretty much as it says on the box. The number is superficial character work at best, and the character doesn't really warrant a number in the first place. On the other hand, we have a major moment in the second act, when J.M. Barrie brings the entire cast of Peter Pan to recreate the show in the bedroom of an ailing Sylvia, a moment that would seem to cry out for a musical number, but all we get is a stylized retread of Barrie's play.
Another problem with Finding Neverland is a rather bizarre mismatch of styles. The generic pop score is at odds with the Victorian time frame, which would be fine if not for the rather literal period costumes and sets. We also get a series of jarringly angular and jerky dance sequences from choreographer Mia Michaels, a self-aggrandizing style that disappears about a quarter of the way through the show, never to return. (Michaels' most significant credit would seem to be So You Think You Can Dance. Yeah, that's who I'd hire for a 19th Century period piece.)
Director Diane Paulus seems to be struggling with how to bring the material to life, and a number of sequences reflect this uncertainty. There's a dinner-party number that's meant to show how the kids, Sylvia, and Barrie occupy one world, while Barrie's wife and Sylvia's mother are in another world entirely. It's a good idea, but as currently staged the number has no focus. There's so much going on, it's hard to know what to pay attention to, an issue exacerbated by a spate of mugging chorus members continually trying to pull focus.
Another number, called "Believe," is meant to be inspirational, with Barrie encouraging the Llewelyn boys to let their creativity take flight, but Paulus fleshes out the number with a rather bizarre admixture of buskers and bees. As I sat watching the show, I kept thinking of Big Fish, another show that wanted to celebrate story-telling and imagination, but wound up demonstrating very little of either.
One thing that Finding Neverland has in its favor is a stellar cast of first-rate Broadway performers, including Jeremy Jordan as Barrie, Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, and Carolee Carmello as Madame du Maurier, Sylvia's mother. They all get their chance to belt their brains out, if that's your idea of great theater, but I had to feel sorry for Carolee for having to deliver the reprise of "All That Matters," generic lyric and all. Also in the cast is Tony winner Michael McGrath as theatrical impresario Charles Frohman, and I swear I could sense McGrath gritting his teeth while trudging through a show that is decidedly beneath his talent.
On a final note, why is such a manifestly commercial show even playing at the ART to begin with? Other than money, that is? I suppose it's possible to argue that All The Way, The Glass Menagerie, Porgy and Bess, and even Pippin might in some way intersect with the artistic mission of a major nonprofit theater at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. But Finding Neverland? Such a patently mercenary venture feels like filthy lucre, and nothing more.