Jeff Sullivan says he spent most of his life eluding “Peter Pan.”
“I wasn’t (a fan) growing up,” he said. “It just skipped me for some reason.”
But that changed three years ago when the Canadian-born actor was cast playing multiple roles – including Nana, the St. Bernard – in a production of “Pan” at an outdoor amphitheater in Utah, surrounded by three sides of red rock at the Snow Canyon State Park.
“Oh my gosh, it was absolutely beautiful,” he recalled in a phone interview from Salt Lake City. “To learn about those characters after being thrust into this beautiful, decadent, glittery, extravagant show was just absolutely awe-inspiring.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Now, “in the past three years, I’ve become a Peter Pan advocate,” the actor said.
Sullivan believes that experience helped nab him his biggest role to date, playing “Pan” author J.M. Barrie in “Finding Neverland,” a musical based on the creation of “Pan.”
“For me,” he says, “Barrie was a dream role I didn’t know I wanted.”
“Finding Neverland” plays for three performances later this month at Century II Concert Hall, to kick off the Broadway Theatre League season.
Sullivan auditioned for the role by learning the five scenes and four songs given to him. After one scene and one song, he was shooed off stage with a terse “thank you very much, that’s all we need.”
“I thought, ‘Great, I got cut,’” he recalled.
But he got a callback a week later and eventually was offered the role. He enjoyed the playfulness of the author and developed an affinity for the part.
“I had so much fun being playful and creative with it,” Sullivan said. “It was a childish role in a good way, a youthful role. It’s the most fun I have every night.”
Barrie gets to stop the show and talk to the audience, which sees how the characters in “Pan” develop.
“It’s a roller coaster every night,” he said.
“Finding Neverland” ran for 17 months on Broadway in 2015-16 and was nominated for two Drama Desk Awards and two Drama League Awards. On Broadway, Barrie was played by “Glee” star Matthew Morrison, and “Frasier’s” Kelsey Grammer played Barrie’s friend Charles Frohman, who morphs into Captain Hook.
The musical version of Barrie’s life, Sullivan says, takes poetic license with the real story of the author. Sullivan, 6-foot-2, plays Barrie, who was a foot shorter. Sullivan is 25, playing the mid-40s Barrie.
Sullivan read up on the real-life author as soon as he was cast in the role.
“I learned how introverted he was,” Sullivan said. “He was very youthful and very whimsical but also had this side that felt he wasn’t man enough, that because of his height and because of his features, he wasn’t a strong man.
“He didn’t think he could be married or be a man that a woman would want to marry. He never pursued any of the women in his life, and it wasn’t until Mary Barrie (his wife) approached him very directly and flirted him that he thought of being married,” he added.
Mary Barrie is not the female lead of the show. That is Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, a widow with four children who inspires Barrie to write his most famous work.
Sullivan said he was grateful to have studied up on the real person.
“It provided so much knowledge to be able to go in for this show, with references on what was created and how it was created,” he said. “It definitely informed the process.”
In his program biography, Sullivan thanks his younger brother, Marcus, who “always taught me to believe!” Marcus has Down Syndrome and is an inspiration to his brother.
Although his mother made her way down from Newfoundland to attend the opening night of the tour, Sullivan hopes Marcus can catch a show as well.
“I think he’ll just roar at the show and how fun it is, all the hints of Peter Pan,” he said.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Dec. 18-20
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas