“Finding Neverland” is a backstory — a narrative behind the classic tale of Peter Pan that’s told again and again in books, movies and on stage.
NETworks Presentations’ touring production of the poignant and magical musical, coming to the Craterian on Thursday, shows audiences how Joseph Matthew Barrie conceived his immortal characters and story.
The ninth of 10 children, Barrie was born in 1860 Scotland and was educated there before moving to England, where he established himself as a successful novelist and playwright. As with many authors, the muse sometimes disappears. Barrie’s writing became stale. Audiences were tired of the same old plots. His theatrical producer wanted a product that would sell.
It was around this time that Barrie met a family with five sons. He would meet with them frequently, entertaining the children with stories and games. One of the boys was withdrawn, reluctant to allow himself the freedom and creativity demonstrated by the others. It was from this child that Barrie started to see himself more clearly, and to experience the return of his muse. He recognized the importance of believing in himself and of taking chances, and he decided to take a chance on something that blended reality and fantasy. Hence began the story we know today as “Peter Pan.”
“Finding Neverland,” a musical based on the 2004 Academy Award-winning film starring Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp, will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. Tickets can be purchased at craterian.org, the box office at 16 S. Bartlett St., or by calling 541-779-3000.
Jeff Sullivan, who plays Barrie in the touring production of “Finding Neverland,” says in a telephone interview that he believes Barrie was swept into the world of the children’s imaginations as he invented games about Indians, pirates and a place he called Neverland.
As well as telling the backstory of “Peter Pan,” “Finding Neverland” uses much of the tale that is so widely known. All the favorite characters are there, and with elaborate theatrical devices we see characters who fly, pirates, crocodiles, stars and fairy dust — all things that have made the variations of the story so enticing over the years.
Peter Pan first appeared in Barrie’s 1902 novel “The Little White Bird.” He reappeared in a stage production authored by Barrie and a 1911 novel. These were followed by Walt Disney’s animated film, a play by Allan Knee, and David Magee’s movie in 2004. The musical production of the same name was based on Knee’s play and Magee’s film, and premiered in England in 2012 before heading to a successful run on Broadway in 2015.
For the touring production of “Finding Neverland,” Tony Award-winning Diane Paulus’s original direction is recreated by Mia Walker, and Mia Michaels’ original choreography by associate choreographer Camden Loeser. Production staff includes scenic design by Scott Pask, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, costume design by Suttirat Larlarb, and illusions by Paul Kieve.
Sullivan describes his growing enthusiasm as he prepared for his role in the show. He found the research fascinating as he dug into the real J.M. Barrie. He also notes that while all the original characters are embedded in “Finding Neverland” and the musical honors the original story and earlier productions, it includes a slightly different version of the classic story.
“Finding Neverland” will likely appeal to people of all ages in the way its story unfolds, as well as in special production effects. Barrie confronts tremendous grief as family members and some of the young boys who inspired the story of Peter Pan die, but he is aware of the importance of believing and of taking chances. Sullivan says the takeaway is best summarized in one of the show’s lines: “With just imagination and creative speculation, our life calling was never meant to be boring.”
In a Los Angeles Daily News interview, Paulson, the show’s original director, says, “This story is a love letter to the theater and what it takes to create something that breaks boundaries or takes us to where we’ve never been.”
Orange County Register critic Eric Marchese says “Finding Neverland” “evokes the sense of wonder we feel as children yet often lose after growing into ordinary, unimaginative adults,” echoing Sullivan’s remark that when he first learned of the story and music he was “swept away with its imaginative, beautiful world.”
With the many incarnations and adaptations of the original story and the telling of Barrie’s life, historians might wonder about the accuracy of some of the details. Regardless, “Finding Neverland” promises music, dance, acting and theatrical magic that remind us of the importance of imagination and of never giving up.
Judy Van Zile is a freelance writer living in Medford.