Hoopla

'Finding Neverland' works through real heartaches to reach magical realm of imagination

Jeremy Daniel photo

Jeff Sullivan (left) and Seth Erdley strike a Peter Pan pose in “Finding Neverland.” The musical about the genesis of “Peter Pan” is flying into the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 30, after landing in the Des Moines Civic Center from Dec. 27 to 29.
Jeremy Daniel photo Jeff Sullivan (left) and Seth Erdley strike a Peter Pan pose in “Finding Neverland.” The musical about the genesis of “Peter Pan” is flying into the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 30, after landing in the Des Moines Civic Center from Dec. 27 to 29.
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Even though “Finding Neverland” isn’t a Christmas musical, Christmas is the perfect time to see the show, according to lead actor Jeff Sullivan.

“I’m excited to see how this show affects people, and who comes out during the holidays, because I think it’s such a beautiful holiday show,” he said by phone from a recent tour stop in Yakima, Wash. “It’s a beautiful time to come see this and imagine. It’s not a Christmas show, but that theme is so important for Christmas — the imagining and believing.”

The origins of the “Peter Pan” tale unfold in the Broadway national tour flying into the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 30, after landing at the Des Moines Civic Center from Dec. 27 to 29.

Sullivan, 25, plays Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie, who at the turn of the 20th century, penned the beloved tale of the boy who never grows up, lives beyond the stars and vexes the villainous Captain Hook. The show’s synopsis calls it “a magical world,” that’s “unlike any the high-society London theatergoers have ever seen.”

Up until the enduring success of “Peter Pan,” the play’s prolific writer was stuck in a rut, “spitting out” show after show, following an unsatisfying formula, Sullivan said. Barrie was bored, he feared his audiences were bored and his boss was demanding something new.

In the 2015 Broadway musical, loosely based on his life story, Barrie found renewed inspiration while walking his dog through London’s Kensington Park. There, he watched with fascination as a widow and her four young sons romped as pirates and whipped up other fanciful adventures.

“He gets totally swept away by their lack of society norms,” Sullivan said. The family didn’t care what people were saying about their unabashed antics. “He is just totally fascinated by this wave of excitement and creativity and childhood whimsy. He then takes over six months to even come up with the concept of Peter Pan.”

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With his boss turning up the pressure and Barrie not knowing what to write, it seems to society like he’s abandoned the theater to simply play with these boys day after day.

“J.M. Barrie himself was a very imaginative character, but we pick up in his life when he’s drained of that imagination,” Sullivan said. “He’s got to get back in touch with it.”

The ninth of 10 children, Barrie grew up in a small, working-class town in Scotland, where his father worked for minimum wage as a weaver. His parents saved up enough money to send him to a succession of private schools. He studied literature in college, and at 24, he made his way to London, where he began writing news articles and reviewing plays, then slowing becoming a playwright.

“His character was always so beautiful and whimsical,” Sullivan said, noting that the play begins when he’s 43 and wrapped up in his newfound inspiration.

During the course of the show, audiences will see the Peter Pan cast come to life in his head and in a play staged within the play. The children become youthful characters and Barrie’s boss transforms into Captain Hook, giving him the conflict the show lacked in the face of all the whimsy, Sullivan said.

Conflict also arises in his home life. Barrie and his wife, Mary, divorce when his association with the young widow, Sylvia, and her sons raises eyebrows and gossip, even though he and Sylvia were just great friends.

A notion of romance enters in Act II, Sullivan said.

“He becomes closer to the kids than could ever imagine, and he learns to be a father to them in a whole different sense. He learns a lot of responsibility, because he and Mary never had kids. ... I think that he never realized how much he wanted to have kids. So by the end of the show, he has grown with them in ways he never expected. We really go through the beautiful inspiration immortalized through the children of ‘Peter Pan’ and how their stories would be told for over a 100 years at this point.”

Creating the story also helped Barrie get back with the childlike whimsy buried deep within himself. In essence, he is Peter Pan, not Sylvia’s son who is named Peter.

When the play begins, the boys have lost their father to cancer, and Peter is the one bearing the most grief, giving up on childhood, Sullivan said. That mirrors Barrie’s real life, when at age 6, an older brother died, leaving his mother mired in grief and pulling the joy from Barrie’s childhood. Peter also is a writer, and through their shared experiences, they forge a strong bond.

“So Peter Pan, himself, is J.M. Barrie, even though it was very much inspired by the little boy, Peter,” Sullivan said. “I think he truly is an immortalized, kindred spirit.”

Sullivan, who grew up in Newfoundland and moved to New York seven years ago to attend the New York Film Academy, loves the character he plays onstage. He sees Barrie’s life story as a testament to “not letting other people determine your happiness.”

“I love James because he is beautifully flawed. He listens to other people — like any person in the world. He created this beautiful thing, but he listened to other people. He was a little zany, a little wacky, but also cared what other people thought of him.

“We live our lives for ourselves, yes, but ultimately, we’re all affected by what other people say about us. We all have feelings, we all get hurt. There’s something so grounded and so beautiful about playing that character every single night.”

Sullivan’s favorite song to sing in the show is “Neverland,” not only for its beauty, but for the way it resonates in his soul.

“It’s a very tender moment where James opens up to Sylvia about losing his older brother as a child, so he understands grief, and through that, he imagines how his brother went to Neverland ... a place I invented where you can never grow old. He takes a second and goes, ‘I’ve never told anyone that before.’ ... This place he created was for his brother, where his brother could go.”

Sullivan has a brother with Down syndrome, and even though his brother is living, Neverland still tugs at his heart.

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“The first time ever did those scenes in New York, I just lost it,” he said. “I completely just started crying — how beautifully it’s written and how important my little brother is to me.

“I can’t even imagine losing him, but I think it’s less about the losing and more about what my little brother has inspired in me. How he is immortalized in his own way of being a child forever and never growing up. With Down’s, they have the biggest heart in the entire world, and there’s no judgment, there’s no sense of the society. ... The infinite amount of love those children can give.

“He’s 21 now, and it still feels like he’s 11, and all those things we went through as children are still there because he is truly the same age. It’s a different interpretation of a Lost Boy. It’s so beautiful to me, and I never thought about that until we did this show.”

Get Out!

WHAT: “Finding Neverland” national tour

CEDAR RAPIDS: 5 p.m. Dec. 30, Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE; $50 to $75, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com

DES MOINES: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 27; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 28; 2 p.m. Dec. 29; Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St.; $36 to $111, Civic Center Box Office, (515) 246-2300 or Desmoinesperformingarts.org/events/1819-finding-neverland/

RUN TIME: 2 hours 30 minutes

SHOW’S WEBSITE: Findingneverlandthemusical.com

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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