Peter Pan has been an iconic presence in our lives for a long time.
But where did the adventure begin? How did the boy who would never grow up come into being?
That is the story of the musical “Finding Neverland,” which opens Friday at the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre.
The show, set in Edwardian England, focuses on author J.M. Barrie, a successful playwright whose world has been turned upside down by the death of his brother.
“J.M. Barrie wrote that he invented Neverland as the place where his brother went,” says Mia Walker, who is directing “Finding Neverland.”
“ ‘Peter Pan’ deals with loss and grief, which we will all experience,” Walker says. “There’s something at the core that is saying even through the loss and grief, you can still experience joy. We have this universal fear and trauma and ‘Peter Pan’ is, in essence, a way to cope with it.”
Barrie was in a creative rut when he met Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, a recent widow who was raising four boys. His plays were all the same — forgettable comedies set in drawing rooms or aboard cruise liners.
“He is in denial, he doesn’t see he is stuck in a formula,” Walker says. “Because he is a celebrity, he’s got sycophants around him. Nobody is being honest. Then he meets this family.”
Sylvia is honest with him about his plays. So, too, are her boys.
“She is a Bohemian woman,” Walker says. “At that time, there was no such thing as childhood. You had children and sent them away to boarding school . Being allowed to play and make mistakes didn’t exist. But Sylvia allowed her children to play, (and) this fascinated Barrie.”
Playing pirates was a favorite pastime, complete with eye patches and costumes.
“Barrie notices that one of the boys, Peter, is growing up too fast, he doesn’t see any point in playing,” Walker says. “Barrie sees himself in Peter. Together, they unlock their zest for life.”
As Barrie more and more becomes a father figure to the Llewelyn Davies boys (and romances Sylvia), the ideas for “Peter Pan” begin forming.
“Peter Pan” was a huge hit when it opened at the Duke of York Theatre. It was also a huge risk.
“Here in 2019, audiences are used to seeing all kinds of things on stage, but in 1902 in Edwardian England, to have fairies, a ship, pirates, gender bending, with a girl playing Peter Pan, it was all completely radical,” Walker says. “Charles Frohman, a big producer at the time, was taking a big risk putting it on at his theater, the Duke of York.”
An acting troupe will be putting on “Peter Pan,” inside “Finding Neverland,” and all the familiar faces are there, with Captain Hook and his gang, Peter, Wendy and Tinkerbell.
While some shows are full of spectacle, “Finding Neverland” is filled with imagination, simple tricks of the stage and the magic that can bring out.
After “Finding Neverland” finishes its run at the Dutch Apple, it will go on tour. The situation is similar to the Dutch Apple’s production of “Pippin.”
Walker was with “Finding Neverland” before it went to Broadway. She was there for the two national tours as well.
“This is the exact physical set seen on Broadway in 2015-16 and the national tours,” Walker says. “There’s the original staging done on Broadway, adapted for the Dutch Apple space.”
The clothing is from the Broadway show, as is the choreography.
Sounds like it would be easy to put on, but Walker says the show is deceptive.
“It doesn’t seem that complicated, but it’s got a lot of moving parts,” she says. “I have been with ‘Finding Neverland’ since 2014, so I know what has gone into every idea in the show. It feels very profound and human driven.”