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Jeff Sullivan, left, plays J.M. Barrie in "Finding Neverland." He is shown in a scene with Conor McGiffin, who plays Charles Frohman/Capt. Hook.
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'Finding Neverland'

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The national tour of the Broadway musical that won Broadway.com's Audience Choice Award for Best Musical stops in the Tivoli Theatre for three performances June 21-22.

"Finding Neverland" is the magical story of how playwright J.M. Barrie's imagination gave flight to his most famous character, Peter Pan. The musical is filled with special effects, flying and a show-stopping original score, but what audiences may find most astounding is that the story is based on fact.

If you go

› What: “Finding Neverland”

› Where: Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.

› When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 21; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 22

› Admission: $37, $52, $67, $77

› For more information: 423-757-5580

In "Finding Neverland," Barrie is a playwright of some success looking for inspiration when he meets four young brothers (George, Jack, Peter and Michael Davies) and their widowed mother, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. Davies' husband has died from cancer and she is trying to raise the four boys on her own.

Enchanted by the young boys' make-believe adventures, Barrie sets out to write a play based on those stories that will astound London theater patrons. When the boys learn their mother is ill and slowly dying, Barrie turns imagination and creativity into coping mechanisms to help them deal with grief.

"Finding Neverland" becomes a story-within-a-story: one storyline following Barrie's relationship with the Davies family, the other developing the plot of "Peter Pan."

"It's based on his true story and who inspired each of those roles in 'Peter Pan,'" says Jeff Sullivan, who plays the lead role of Barrie. "They have edited some of the timeline, but it is pieced together in a way that is best for a show to encompass everything in two and a half hours."

Sullivan points out that when Barrie unveiled "Peter Pan," dramatic theater was the accepted style of the Edwardian period.

"'Peter Pan' was breaking down those walls to create something magical and new. Something people thought was a play for children, but wasn't just a story for children. It was a play for everyone."

Its magic is brought to the stage in special effects such as flying, but presented in a way that is grounded and realistic, he explains.

"A lot of flying happens with lifts. Peter still flies, but in a different format where the audience uses their imagination.

"A lot of special effects are done with projections, beautiful set pieces, a very colorful set — exactly what Neverland is: a beautiful, mystical place. Tinkerbell is portrayed with a light. It's a beautiful effect that looks like light flashing across the stage," Sullivan describes.

Audiences shouldn't expect to hear any of the music from "Peter Pan" — this musical has an all-original score written by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy with book by James Graham.

"They have created a very contemporary score, but it still has Disney-type magic," credits Sullivan.

"'Stronger' at the end of Act 1 is a giant pirate number that has a pirate set with plank, sails and masts. It's a very powerful moment when Hook pushes Barrie to dig deeper and find what he wants in life, not answer to other people. He feels he's stronger for powering through having all these people tell him what he should and shouldn't do," Sullivan says.

Choreography for this musical is by Mia Michaels, who has won two Emmy Awards for outstanding choreography on "So You Think You Can Dance."

Although W.C. Fields once advised actors "never work with dogs or children," Sullivan deals with both: two dogs and six boys traveling with this tour. Both dogs are rescue mixes that look like sheepdogs — just like Nana in "Peter Pan."

"In my opinion, this show wouldn't exist without those boys or the dogs. On and offstage, their personalities are what make the show. Sammie (the dog) has done the show for three years and knows his part."

Although the storyline deals with the loss of a parent, Sullivan states the musical is family-friendly.

"It has everything — all the beautiful qualities of the original 'Peter Pan' and you get to find out how those happened."

Sullivan says he has most enjoyed connecting with Barrie's "creative, childlike wonder in life" as he has played this role.

"As the show starts, he is successful, but not digging into his truth about what he wants to put out into the world. His plays get fine reviews, but people aren't really happy with them. Through a lot of turmoil and grief, he develops this childlike wonder that is part of the story I will always live and thrive in."

When "Finding Neverland" wraps up this month, Sullivan will next be seen at Highlands Playhouse in North Carolina, playing Curly in "Oklahoma," which opens July 11. Playhouse patrons may recall he played Sky Masterson in that theater's production of "Guys and Dolls."

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

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