‘Finding Neverland’ Theater Review: Matthew Morrison Turns His Broadway Return Into Pure Child’s Play

Produced by Harvey Weinstein, this musical tale about J.M. Barrie’s creation of “Peter Pan” is kept magnificently low tech by director Diane Paulus

Producers traditionally give themselves credit above the title of a Broadway show. Harvey Weinstein breaks that tradition by not only giving Weinstein Live Entertainment that honored spot at the top, but under the cast and two dozen other credits, he also announces: “produced by Harvey Weinstein.”

Since he began the process of bringing “Finding Neverland” to Broadway with another director and creative team, it’s possible that such a drastic overhaul deserves two producing credits. “Finding Neverland” isn’t just Weinstein’s grandest legit gamble, it’s also a thoroughly enchanting new musical. And not in ways one might expect from all the out-of-town brouhaha.

Diane Paulus, the show’s current director, has kept this musical tale about J. M. Barrie’s creation of “Peter Pan” magnificently low tech. There are a few flying effects, but when the Llewelyn Davies children dream of soaring into the air, stagehands in black suits come out of the wings to make them do just that. When Barrie (Matthew Morrison) fantasizes about being on a ship at sea, the waves are supplied by big, billowing sheets. In other words, Paulus creates magic not by being literal but recalling stage machinery that’s appropriate to the year of Barrie’s classic play, 1904.

Especially dazzling is one character’s exit from this planet, which sees her carried away in a tornado of stars, courtesy of the credited “air sculptor” Daniel Wurtzel. And especially charming is how book writer James Graham does not expand on the “Finding Neverland” screenplay to include a big stage version of “Peter Pan.” Instead, we don’t see that momentous stage premiere on the West End, but rather the original cast comes in costume to perform the new play for the dying Mrs. Llewelyn Davies (a very understated Laura Michelle Kelly).

As Barrie’s American producer Charles Frohman (and his Captain Hook), Kelsey Grammer far surpasses his stage work in “La Cage aux Folles.” No one knows how to massage a laugh line better than Grammer, and rightly so, Morrison lets his co-star provide most of the night’s humor. The “Glee” star, on the other hand, keeps it very low-key, giving real heart and enormous grace to Barrie, the real boy who never grows up.

While Paulus has kept “Finding Neverland” relatively small, there’s still some pandering to modern taste for the overblown, if not the entirely inappropriate.

Act one ends with yet another over-amplified power ballad, in this case the aptly titled “Stronger.” More vexing, the orchestrations by Simon Hale are downright schizophrenic. The rousing ensemble numbers by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy could be lifted from a 1950’s musical, but whenever Morrison or Kelly are given one of their infectious ballads to sing, Hale goops it up with a soft-rock syncopation. Weirder yet is how Kelly and Morrison, delivering a spot-on Scottish accent when he speaks, resort to a country twang for their singing voices.

Overall, however, Weinstein’s gamble has paid off. This production may not be total perfection, but it works real magic with its child’s play.