CEDAR RAPIDS — As if the story of Peter Pan isn’t magical enough, the story behind the story is equally enchanting.
A nearly full house of 1,450 people rose instantly to their feet at the Paramount Theatre on Sunday night to shower the human and canine cast of “Finding Neverland” with cheers and applause that shot “past the second star on the right and straight ahead to the morning light.”
This musical inspired by a book, a play and a movie flew onto Broadway in 2015, and the national tour landed first in Des Moines for four performances last week, then in Cedar Rapids for one night, sweeping up all ages in its path.
Those of us who grew up with J.M. Barrie’s tale of the boy who refused to grow up could revel in the sparks of inspiration that found their way into the musical, from Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Ruby Gibbs) declaring that even pirates needed a mother, to theatrical producer Charles Frohman (Spenser Micetich) taking a swig of scotch on opening night and declaring to his assistant, “Goodnessme,” which sounded just like “Goodness, Smee.”
The dialogue tucks little moments of delight throughout the story anchored in fact, which tells how J.M. Barrie (Jeff Sullivan) reached deep down inside, past his inner demons, to reconnect with the child hiding inside ever since his older brother died in an ice skating accident in their youth.
Barrie grew up to be a writer, churning out play after play that appeased the London audiences at the turn of the 20th century, but had an artistically unsatisfying sameness for the playwright.
Then one day while walking his dog in London’s Kensington Gardens, he met four young brothers playing pirate, with their widowed mother joining the fray in an effort to give her children a reprieve from their grief over losing their father.
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Such unseemly Edwardian behavior intrigued Barrie. Soon he was spending more time with this family than with his social-climbing wife (Ashley Edler) and his demanding boss, who loved to use the hook end of his cane to punctuate his never-ending lament, “tick tock,” time is running out.
As Barrie reawakens childlike wonder in the boy Peter (Caleb Reese Paul), who has taken his father’s death the hardest, so Peter reawakens the childlike wonder inside Barrie. Their magical adventures whisk Barrie’s imagination to the Neverland he invented as the place where his deceased brother would play as a child for all eternity.
Soon, audiences would be whisked away to this Neverland, as well, which has been charming audiences since 1904.
This production wraps the story in glorious solos and grand production numbers; ravishing costumes, backdrops, lighting and video projections; and perfectly proper choreography, precise with every hippety-hop and torso pop. Beautiful ballet enters the scene whenever the actors are hoisted by the pirates to fly through their dreams and through the staging of the play “Peter Pan” within the show.
Melody Rose shines as Pan in a beautiful airborne pas de deux with Wendy (Marie Choate), but the show’s most glorious moment comes when Pan envelops Sylvia in a swirl of glitter to fly with him to Neverland.
Equal parts love story and grand adventure, this show rests on Sullivan’s broad shoulders as he awakens Barrie with spellbinding complexity and a commanding vocal presence. Gibbs brings light to his life as Sylvia encourages him to throw caution to the wind. Their duet “Neverland” is hauntingly beautiful as Barrie bares his soul to her. The Llewelyn Davies boys were adorable throughout, but their standout moment came when they whipped up their big number, “We’re All Made of Stars,” dreaming of possibilities.
Those possibilities are endless in this marriage blurring the lines of fantasy and reality across time and space.
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