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‘Finding Neverland’: Actor Jeff Sullivan had to grow up before he discovered the boy who wouldn’t

Jeff Sullivan and the cast of “Finding Neverland” set sail for the second star on the right, straight on to morning starting next week at the First Interstate Center for the Arts in Spokane. (Jeremy Daniel)
Jeff Sullivan and the cast of “Finding Neverland” set sail for the second star on the right, straight on to morning starting next week at the First Interstate Center for the Arts in Spokane. (Jeremy Daniel)

The boy who never grew up has been the subject of many types of entertainment since Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie first dreamed him up in the 1902 novel “The Little White Bird.”

It wasn’t long before the boy named Peter Pan took flight as the star of the show, in Barrie’s “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” which debuted on the stage in London in 1904.

Since then, we’ve enjoyed Disney’s classic 1953 animated version of the story. We’ve seen film adaptations that imagine what Peter would be like as an adult (“Hook”). He’s been the subject of songs by artists as diverse as Kate Bush (“In Search of Peter Pan”), Kelsea Ballerini (“Peter Pan”) and Troye Sivan (“Lost Boy”). And his backstory has been re-imagined for the page and stage in “Peter and the Starcatcher.”

But in 2004, the film “Finding Neverland” told the based-on-fact story of how Barrie befriended the Llewelyn Davies family, and how they inspired the creation of Peter, Tinkerbell, Captain Hook and the Lost Boys of Neverland. That story is now a musical, and it’s coming to Spokane to open the STCU Best of Broadway season starting on Thursday night.

Jeff Sullivan stars as Barrie in this latest U.S. tour. It’s a role originated in the movie by Johnny Depp and on Broadway by Matthew Morrison (“Glee”).

Sullivan admits Barrie’s most famous creation had escaped his notice as a child.

“I did not grow up with ‘Peter Pan,’ funnily enough. For some reason, that Disney movie skipped by my childhood,” Sullivan said in a recent telephone interview. “ ‘Peter Pan’ was sort of thrust into my life about two years ago, and when I did the Broadway version … in Utah. We did the show, I got swept away in this beautiful world.”

His recent experience with “Peter Pan” certainly informed his audition process and how he’s taken on the role of Barrie. It helped deepen his understanding of the world Barrie created.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” he said, “I think this is the most creative and fulfilling experience I’ve had in my life. … It’s just such a wonderful opportunity.”

It’s a demanding show from his standpoint, too. Barrie rarely is off stage.

“There’s maybe 20 minutes total off stage, collectively, and most of those times are quick (costume) change or there are a couple songs that do happen,” he said. “But ultimately I go on this roller coaster at the top of the show. … Then you’re on this huge wave as J.M. Barrie, through meeting this family in Kensington Gardens who inspired the entirety of ‘Peter Pan.’ ”

Music and lyrics are by Gary Barlow, frontman of the British boy band Take That, and composer-producer Eliot Kennedy, who has written for Celine Dion, Donny Osmond, the Wanted and the Spice Girls. The book is by James Graham. “Finding Neverland” ran for 17 months on Broadway with an original cast that included “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer as theater producer Charles Frohman and veteran stage actress Laura Michelle Kelly as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whose four sons inspire Barrie in his writing.

And while the story of “Peter Pan” may be beloved for its magical look at childhood, the story of “Finding Neverland” has more somber overtones. It deals with grief and unhappy marriages and grownup sadness, which one supposes is why Barrie was happy to invent a world where children do not grow up.

“ ‘Peter Pan,’ which is over 100 years old and absolutely has stood the test of time, applies to so many families and how they grew up, and how they never grew up. We’re dealing with a much heavier topic of ‘Finding Neverland,’ ” Sullivan said. “Through this real and human experience of grief and divorce and a lot of things that life hits you with, was able to produce this absolutely beautiful story of fantasy, and getting whisked away into this entire new world. Instead of it being this fabricated story that we almost think is so … cartoonish, it brings you back into the realism of ‘Oh, that was actually based in truth, and how did we actually get there.’ ”


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