Finding Neverland is, as has been widely reported, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s first foray proper into musical theatre. Based on the Weinstein produced 2004 film which had been adapted from Allan Knee’s play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, Knee returns to write the book with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. All of which basically means that Leicester is getting the premiere of a brand spanking new US, presumably Broadway bound, musical. There are out-of-town tryouts and there are out-of-town tryouts. Apparently the world and his wife, well Bono and Cameron Mackintosh, have been schlepping up to the Midlands to give Weinstein their two penneth and the end results are not too bad for a first time producer (I just wrote that knowing that Harvey Weinstein is as likely to read this as I am of replacing Julian Ovenden for the West End run).
Talking of the swoonsome Mr Ovenden, here he is J M Barrie, trapped in a loveless marriage to actress and musical hall star Mary, Clare Foster, a beautiful but unfeeling ice maiden. The action opens as his latest play, The Wedding Guest, has bombed and he is mooning about Kensington Gardens with his beloved St Bernard, Porthos. Bumping into four young boys, he spends the afternoon playing with them, unleashing his inner child. Their widowed mother Sylvia, the sublime Rosalie Craig, arrives to collect them and there is really only one remaining plot trajectory in the history of musical theatre.
Julian Ovenden is onstage for almost the entire two and a half hours and is phenomenal. One of only a handful of British leading men that is that effortless triple threat, charming, disarming, handsome (did I mention he was good looking?) and of course gifted with a voice that could make angels weep. Here he is matched with two leading ladies of equal stature in Rosalie Craig and Clare Foster, who may not be above-the-title stars just yet, but that is just a question of time.
This really is a great big Broadway show with sets the like of which I doubt Leicester has ever seen before and is unlikely to do so again, unless Mr Weinstein returns for a tryout of Kill Bill On Ice. There are stunning projections, a pirate ship, a car, showgirls on swings, flying children and a fantastically sounding 14 piece orchestra. The score is lush, although the songs lack those essential earworm moments. As you would expect with the pedigree of the cast, the performances are world class, not least those of the four boys, who all have CVs that would be the envy of many a West End actor.
Then only flaw I can find in Mr Weinstein’s grand plan is that, although it is being billed as “Finding Neverland – The New Musical Comedy”, there is very little to laugh at. Only a grandly camp Oliver Boot in the dual roles of theatre critic Maximillian Blunt and Barrie’s conscience Captain Hook brings levity and a few chuckles. In fact the story is almost worthy of Ibsen, dealing as it does with loss and lives unfulfilled and therein lies the rub. It is far too dark for children, of whom there were hundreds at the matinee we attended, and far too eager to please little ones to be taken totally seriously by an adult audience. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy it, as the 4 stars and the tear in my eye at the end attest. It is just that the constant murmur of questioning children was an accompaniment throughout, which did get me wondering if, in the quest to reach the widest audience possible, has Harvey managed to alienate virtually everyone?
I presume there will be endless rewriting before this inevitably arrives in the West End and I look forward to a revisit when it is closer to home.
If nothing else, the memory of the gorgeous Julian Ovenden doing the highland fling in a kilt and tight black undies will remain a constant companion throughout the long winter nights ahead.
Booking until 18 October 2012, a great big Broadway show in Leicester - Finding Neverland