Q&A: ‘Finding Neverland’ explores ‘Peter Pan’ origin at National Theatre

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Finding Neverland' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning — all the way to D.C.

We all know the enchanting story of Peter Pan, but how did that story actually come to be? The answer arrives this week as “Finding Neverland” sprinkles pixie dust on National Theatre.

“‘Peter Pan’ is so many people’s favorite,” actress Ruby Gibbs told WTOP. “The idea that you never have to grow up and there’s this beautiful place where all is good, that’s what everyone wants. … It’s really special to go back into a story that meant so much to people. … It’s fun for adults to jump back into their childhood and all of us be in that beautiful world together.”

Based on the play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” (1998) and the Johnny Depp film “Finding Neverland” (2004), the story follows playwright J.M. Barrie, who struggles with writer’s block in 1903 London. That is, until he meets widowed mother Sylvia and her four sons at the park.

“He’s totally inspired by the playfulness and imagination of these boys,” Gibbs said. “There’s a romance between J.M. Barrie and Sylvia, they fall in love, they create this family and together we create the story of ‘Peter Pan.’ You get to see the backstory of how ‘Peter Pan’ came to be. … The musical still speaks to people of all ages. You’ve got kids who are completely blown away by the magic of it all, then you’ve got adults [who] get to see … how it all came together.”

Night in and night out, Gibbs remains impressed by co-star Jeff Sullivan, who plays J.M. Barrie.

“He’s wonderful, incredibly talented and incredibly sweet,” Gibbs said. “He never leaves the stage in this show. He’s constantly working, constantly singing and dancing. He never gets a break. The only time literally that he goes off stage is when I am singing my solo song.”

That song is “All That Matters,” as her widowed mother of four struggles to stay positive.

“They need a mom who stays strong, stays positive and encourages them to play,” Gibbs said. “Sylvia is trying to remind herself who she is, the strength she has inside her and where she needs to go. She can pick between giving up and falling into the darkness or picking herself up and dedicating her life to her four young boys. … It’s beautiful and heart-wrenching and hard to get through each night. I’m kind of getting choked up just talking about it right now.”

It’s just one of the many tunes in a songbook by Scott Frankel & Michael Korie.

“The songs were written very Celtic and stylized in a way you haven’t seen many Broadway musicals,” Gibbs said. “There’s lots of Irish and English influences. That’s just not a style that we hear very much, but it’s full of upbeat numbers, numbers that are sweeping that take you through so much of the story in one song, which I think is fun and kind of moves the plot along. It’s high-energy and it’s fast-paced, but there’s plenty of heart-wrenching songs where you just get to belt your face off and totally live in that emotional, vulnerable moment.”

The heartstrings are plucked by Mia Walker, who takes the reins from Tony-winning director Diane Paulus (“Pippin”) and choreographer Mia Michaels (“So You Think You Can Dance”).

“Her movement is incredibly unique,” Gibbs said. “That’s one of the big draws of this musical —  we’ve never seen choreography for a musical like she choreographed this show. Put the music and the dance together and it’s completely unseen and unheard of. It’s magical and it makes it so specific to our show and it definitely encapsulates what Neverland is like.”

Fittingly, the visuals evolve from the realism of London to the fantasy world of Neverland.

“There is a contrast between the actual people in London versus what you see when we get into Neverland,” Gibbs said. “Life is a bit duller [in London]. Neverland is the most vivid colors. … Everything is big and over the top, there’s beautiful glitter, lights shining and sparkling. It just takes you into this dream world. It’s so other-worldly that you just take a sigh of relief whenever you get to Neverland and feel like you’re in this beautiful, nautical world where you’ve got the brightest red pirate of Captain Hook with curly hair and a shiny, rusty hook.”

Speaking of whom, audiences love Connor McGuffin’s take on Captain Hook.

“J.M. Barrie is inspired to write Captain Hook based off of someone he knows in real life, so Connor has the job of playing two roles,” Gibbs said. “That’s really fun to watch him transform in and out of character. … The women are really into Captain Hook. It’s hard to resist a pirate!”

You’ll also see Tinkerbell, who is created differently from the Mary Martin flashlight of yore.

“Tinkerbell comes to life, maybe not in the way that people would expect, but Tinkerbell is very much in your face and active with the audience,” Gibbs said. “It’s cool to see how that happens with the magic of live theater. … It’s a secret I can’t spoil, but you will know the second you walk into the theater and the second the lights go down. … I’ll just leave it at that.”

Such touches are the stuff of magic that makes “Finding Neverland” captivating for all ages.

“No matter if you’re a tiny, itty-bitty baby, or towards the older end of the spectrum, every single person is going to walk out with a smile on their face and a reminder that there is beauty in the darkest of moments as long as you choose to see it,” Gibbs said. “You get to see magic right in front of your eyes. You get to be swept away into this world for two hours. We hope it acts as a sanctuary, that it’s a special place of smiles, tears and laughter for everyone.”

Find more information on the National Theatre website. Listen to our full conversation below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Ruby Gibbs (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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