Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Celluloid to Stage (A Review)

I have long said that most movies don't translate well to the stage.  I've been saying it pretty much ever since I saw/was in the stage version of Victor/Victoria where I discovered right up close that often the things that make the movie the piece of art that it is simply don't work on stage.  Sometimes it's a problem with screenplay to script to songs, but I strongly feel that it's trying to squeeze information from one medium to another.  And I could list several stage musicals that started as movies (musical and non) that are just awful, but I won't.  This post is about the show I saw last night, Finding Neverland.

I knew going in that this stage musical would be a hard sell for me because I absolutely love the film, and I love Johnny Depp in the film.  So I tried very hard to appreciate this stage musical for itself, as its own piece of art, and not judge it solely on "version of the movie."

TL;DR version:  is it a "bad" musical?  No, it is not.  Is it a "great" musical or something I'd want to see staged again?  No, it is not.

Musically, my date for the evening hit the nail on the head:  most of the songs sounded the same.  Some sounded so similar that I couldn't tell if it was a reprise of an earlier song or a new song entirely.  And it wasn't like there was a recurring musical theme woven in and out pieces as happens in some other musicals (Hamilton, Evita to name a couple); they just sounded alike.

She and I also agreed that there were some really compelling visuals happening during the show -- interesting choreography and just a lot of really awesome ensemble work so that no matter where you looked, something fascinating was going on, but it wasn't so predictable that we "knew" hey, people are going to pop out again!  The show made heavy use of projections (some animated/moving) during the performance.  Projections can be an interesting and also compelling visual aid -- the key word being "aid."  They should add to the performance but never take center stage.  At one point, during "Circus of Your Mind," I think, the projections were too forceful, too attention-grabbing, a bit like hitting the audience over the head with the merry-go-round theme of the music and lyrics rather than letting us figure it out (which wasn't hard to do given the above mentioned music and lyrics).

More importantly, all of the characters were....flattened...from their original selves in the film.  I wish I could say they had been distilled instead.  Distillation would mean the purest version of their selves; like cologne instead of eau de cologne, so strong that it can only come in small doses.  Flattened means they were simply made one-dimensional, reduced to the lowest common denominator.  Examples:

  • I could tell from her first appearance during the opening number that Barrie's wife, Mary, was a flattened, one-dimensional version of herself.  She's been made into a grasping, materialistic caricature of a villain rather than an early twentieth-century woman struggling to do what society has instructed her to do:  to be a good and proper wife with all of the good and proper trappings of that position.
    • She is accompanied by 3 foppish caricatures of servants; more on them later.
  • Barrie's producer, Charles Frohman, has also been turned into a blustering, yelling "villain" type, shouting at Barrie about budgets and costs and schedules.  Dustin Hoffman's Frohman had the same worries, but he never lost faith in Barrie (and he certainly didn't yell).  While they did finally allow Frohman to say one of my favorite lines in the film1, it was far too late for any type of character redemption.
  • Speaking of Frohman,....while having him double as Captain Hook (a bit that looks like it may have been taken from the movie's first concept) seems like an ingenious bit of casting, Captain Hook is now Barrie's alter-ego?!?  Wow.  I find that,...let's say "problematic" for a couple of reasons:
    • In the film (yes, I know I'm doing it again), the inspiration for Captain Hook comes not from Frohman but from Mrs. Emma du Marier (the Sylvia Llewelyn Davies' mother).  The bit of tech in the stage show that shows the inspiration coming from Frohman is fun visual pun -- don't get me wrong -- but making this change takes away from Mrs. du Marier's agency as a female character.
    • It also changes the trajectory/arc of Barrie's character.  In a lot of ways.  He is no longer given inspiration for a children's "villain," but instead is battling his own id/ego/super-ego for recognition as, what?  A man (Hook is certainly masculine in this manifestation, also reinforced by his appearance during the "romantic" scene/love song between Barrie and Sylvia)?  A free agent (now that we've taken it away from Mrs. du Marier)?  In the stage show itself, this number is the Act I finale, and it is something to be seen, indeed.  I'm just don't agree with the character and story line changes it necessitates.
  • Barrie himself is a lesser version than he is in the film.  Again, while they did include one of my favorite lines/scenes2, its emotional impact was completely lost.  And speaking of his relationship with Sylvia Davies (mentioned above), they made the mistake of making them an overt romance.  One of the things the film does (and however much of it is true, I couldn't say) is that the two of them are never explicitly romantic; that's part of what makes their situation so complicated -- it has no name or definition.
Things we liked:  besides the movement/choreography, there was some gasping during the end sequence.  My date gave a small gasp when the handful of glitter was thrown in the air, and I may  have gobbed (that's a gasp plus a small sob) when they added Mrs. Davies' wrap to the swirling air.
....and then, because my brain is crazy, I immediately start thinking How long do they have to wait?  How long is it supposed to swirl?  Is it supposed to be carried away and disappear entirely?  How long do they wait if that doesn't happen?

Conclusion:  I think the overarching issue with this movie to stage translation is that they attempted to turn Finding Neverland into a musical comedy.  One need to look no further than the caricarature of the servants -- fairly unnecessary characters to be added, let alone to be stealing focus by the continual scenery-chewing.  Even Mrs. Barrie's later intended (Mr. Cannan) is turned into a cheap joke of a character.  Finding Neverland (the film) is not a comedy; it's a drama with some funny (and touching, endearing) moments, and that's what got lost in translation.

1Frohman: "You know what happened, James, they changed it."
Barrie: "They changed what?"
Frohman: "The critics, they made it important... hm, what's it called? What's it called?"
Barrie: "Play."
Charles Frohman: "Play."

2 "What a horrible, candle-snuffing word -- 'just.'"

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