Monday, April 27, 2015

New Broadway Musicals—"Finding Neverland" & "Doctor Zhivago"

Finding Neverland
Music & lyrics by Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy; book by James Graham
Directed by Diane Paulus
Opened on April 15, 2015
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Doctor Zhivago
Music by Lucy Simon; lyrics by Michael Korie & Amy Powers; book by Michael Weller
Directed by Des McAnuff
Opened on April 21, 2015
Broadway Theatre, Broadway and 53rd Street, New York, NY

Morrison and Grammer in Finding Neverland (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Broadway musicals based on hit movies are now a cottage industry, and two more (albeit with literary pedigrees as well) have just opened on Broadway.

Dramatizing how playwright J.M. Barrie wrote his classic Peter Pan after being inspired by his unusual friendship with widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her sons (five of them in real life, four in the show), Finding Neverland is based on the 2004 movie with Johnny Depp—itself based on Allan Knee's play The Man Who Was Peter Pan—which was a popular and critical Oscar-winning hit. 

The musical, like the movie, is unabashedly sentimental: James Graham's book streamlines Barrie's complex relationship with the Davies family to a series of delightful frolics he has with the boys and Sylvia in Kensington Gardens, and sets them against humorous backstage scenes and domestic friction at Barrie's home. Director Diane Paulus shrewdly stages all of the action with breathtaking inventiveness, which climaxes with a truly stunning coup de theatre at Pan's opening night performance at the Davies' home.

Paulus' theatrical wizardry is made possible by her superb technical cohorts: Scott Pask's cleverly constructed sets are remindful of Barrie's art by looking like children's book illustrations, Kenneth Posner's radiant lighting deftly encompasses the show's mix of reality, fantasy and stage chicanery, and Suttriat Anne Larlarb's apt costumes steer clear of ostentation. 

Glee's Matthew Morrison, whose Barrie is appealing to adults and reassuring to children, not only masters a difficult Scottish brogue but also sings with it, an amazing feat. The always welcome Kelsey Grammer, as American impresario Charles Frohman—who financed Barrie's plays—is both touching and funny, even selling a goofy Cheers joke that brings a raucous audience response. 

Laura Michelle Kelly's Sylvia has a lovely voice and sweet-natured presence, and as Sylvia's mother, Carolee Caramello showcases her powerful lungs in a part that doesn't allow her to steal any scenes. The four Davies boys are played by the charmingly natural quartet of Alex Dreier, Sawyer Nunes, Christopher Paul Richards and Aidan Gemme, delightful as the real-life Peter.

Finding Neverland, an unapologetically crowd-pleasing entertainment, works almost perfectly, despite Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy's lyrics and songs, which are adequate at best, derivative and tuneless at worst. Still, the show takes its willing audiences on a fantastic journey.

Barrett and Mutu in Doctor Zhivago (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Doctor Zhivago, a stillborn musical run-through of the classic 1965 David Lean movie—itself based on Boris Pasternak's novel about the love affair between a married doctor-poet and a radical young woman—slogs through decades of upheaval in early 20th century Russia, from World War I and the Russian Revolution to the civil war between the Reds and Whites.

Director Des McAnuff, book writer Michael Weller, lyricists Michael Korie and Amy Powers and composer Lucy Simon seemed to realize how difficult their task is. The movie clocks in at three hours-plus and the book runs a whopping 600 pages, so to distill those many events, characters and relationships into a workable narrative is problematic. Indeed, onstage the story lurches along stiffly, characters run on and off quickly, the years race by with onstage surtitles to remind us when and where we are. McAnuff's haphazard directing doesn't help matters: there's no flow or fluid pacing, and the musical numbers are particuarly incoherent, like the Act II opener of women cutting down crops in the fields.

As Zhivago, Tam Mutu has the exotic quality Omar Sharif had in Lean's beloved movie but, although he sings well, he never believably inhabits the character. As Lara, the usually delightful Kelli Barrett—here saddled with an unbecoming blonde wig—gives an uncharacteristically weak performance. Her singing voice is still thrilling to hear, but she remains distinctly and contemporarily American, closer to her Sherrie from Rock of Ages than to Pasternak's Russia.

Korie and Powers' lyrics are so trite that it becomes easy to guess what their next rhyme is, while Simon's songs are bland and forgettable: including Maurice Jarre's ultra-hummable "Lara's Theme (Somewhere My Love)" from the movie is a further musical misstep. There are moments when the orchestra promises more operatic sweep than Simon provides, and makes one wonder what Zhivago would sound like if composed by someone like Sergei Prokofiev, who unfortunately died four years before the 1957 novel was published. 

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