Fascination with characters who become part of our lives often becomes fascination with the minds who create them. In his 1998 play, The Man Who Was Peter Pan, Allan Knee explores the life of a married J.M. Barrie whose growing relationship with a widow and her sons become the basis for his imaginative story. The play was later turned into a film, Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp which premiered in 2004 and earned four Academy Award nominations.
Less than a decade later, the play-turned-film returned to the stage as a musical which ran on Broadway for over a year. Now on tour and visiting Fort Wayne’s Embassy Theatre, Finding Neverland combines history and fantasy, enchanting audiences much as Peter Pan himself has for decades.
Getting the call
While many of the characters, notably Barrie himself, are fanciful and delightful, the character of Mrs. DuMaurier, the strict mother of widow Sylvia, is the deliberate opposite, unmoved by Barrie’s flights of fancy, concerned for her daughter’s well-being. Holding down that role is actress Emmanuelle Zeesman who first auditioned for the show last spring and remembers exactly where she was when she learned she got the part.
“We were in Toronto celebrating my mother-in-law’s birthday when I got the call,” Zeesman said. “So we were all jumping and screaming and crying.”
It was just that kind of opportunity that led Zeesman and her husband to move from their native Canada to pursue theater. Having been encouraged at a workshop that her talents could land her on Broadway, the couple picked up and moved to the United States.
“We came here with no job, no place to live. I don’t know what we were thinking!”
Zeesman’s love of performing came early when she was cast in a production of Fiddler on the Roof at the New Star Children’s Theatre Company in Ottawa. It was an all-girl cast, leaving a 10-year-old Zeesman a chance to tackle the plum role of Tevye. Providing an even bigger challenge to her growing performance skills was a misbehaving cart which lost a wheel.
“That cart was heavy so there was no way I was going to be able to push it around when I was 10,” Zeesman said. “All the dads in the front row came up to help, and eventually got it back up on the stage. But while that was going on I improvised this whole monologue to God, and people laughed and cheered. I knew right then that was what I wanted to do.”
In tackling the role of Mrs. DuMaurier, one which can seem a bit dour at the beginning of the show, Zeesman found her to be sympathetic and completely understood her point of view.
“I do totally sympathize with her,” she said. “I have a stepdaughter who’s 23, and if some married man began pursuing her, I might very well have the same reaction.
“But she’s also the character who gets to change the most in the show. I get to be the character who hates J.M. Barrie because he’s married, but then I get to soften and change after he divorces his wife. I seem completely set in my ways, but I grow and develop another point of view. That’s my favorite thing about the show. I get to travel around the country and show audiences that we can all change. We don’t have to stay in the same place and feel the same things. But in the beginning of the story, it’s 1903, and I’m worried about my daughter and four grandsons and worried that this relationship with ruin my daughter’s reputation. So those early feelings make a lot of sense, and it takes awhile after his divorce to warm up to him and love him.”
Fascination with the tale
The eternal fascination with Peter Pan — be it in the original story, in a film adaptation like Hook, or in the context of Barrie’s story in Finding Neverland — is what drives audiences to see so many different interpretations of the tale. Zeesman thinks there’s a universality to the story that has made it appealing to so many generations.
“Everybody can connect to this story,” she said. “Everyone really is truly young at heart, and they can find that spirit and find that magic at any age. We do strive to stay young, and Peter Pan teaches us that we really can be. There’s an element of magic and a message to believe in yourself. That’s why you see the character and story endure through all of these different incarnations.”
Zeesman also believes that there’s a fascination with how writers find those characters. The audience will see the Peter Pan characters evolve from the characters in Finding Neverland.
“You can see in the show who inspired what character, and in those moments of inspiration, everything goes into slow motion,” she said. “Barrie sees the children jumping on the bed, and it slows down and he realizes they’re flying. A man holds out a cane in the form of a hook. My character tells the children to be quiet, and you see the outline of a crocodile. I love a show that assumes the audience is smart. They don’t need to have it all spelled out for them. They’ll be able to see it happening for themselves.”
Stage brings Something new
Zeesman said she has mixed feelings about musicals inspired by films, yet she understands that producers are drawn to shows that have a built-in audience. Still, she sees theater as bringing something unique to even preexisting projects.
“Even if it’s already been a book or a movie, stage brings a more impressive magic in some ways,” Zeesman said. “Books and movies bring their own kind of magic, but when the magic is happening on a stage, you’re right there. It’s happening in front of you.”
With the tour of Finding Neverland set to run until June 23, Zeesman is enjoying this opportunity to share this story with audiences around her newly adopted country.
“I’ve toured in other shows both here and in Canada, but this is one of the most gratifying shows for me,” she said. “I’ve done shows that audiences have either laughed or cried, but with this show, they come out of the theater doing both. They come out bawling but also hopeful and inspired. The experience has been amazing and inspiring for me, and I’m just happy to be part of it.”
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