Finding Neverland kicks off Broadway series, highlighting performing arts community in Great Falls

A touch of magic is coming to the Mansfield Theater stage this week, and star Ruby Gibbs is hoping audiences leave with the reminder that “you never have to lose that sense of play or that sense of wonder.”

Gibbs plays Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in Finding Neverland, her first national Broadway touring role.

The story tells a romanticized version of playwright J.M. Barrie’s journey in creating Peter Pan, inspired by Llewelyn Davies’ four young sons.

On Nov. 20, the show, based on the 2004 movie, that won’s Audience Choice Award for Best Musical and was originally directed by Tony-winner Diane Paulus is coming to Great Falls.

The role has special meaning for Gibbs, who said she grew up with the Disney version of Peter Pan and remembers the mermaids specifically.

The Raleigh, North Carolina native and her two sisters grew up with a single mother and she saw the movie Finding Neverland when she was 10 or 11.

“I remember crying a lot, it made us too emotional,” she said in a phone interview with The Electric.

They didn’t watch the movie again until Gibbs landed the role and she said she rewatched it just before rehearsals started in September and cried all over again.

Llewelyn Davies and the other characters were real people and though in reality, their relationship didn’t necessarily have happy endings, Gibbs said, “this is a story that needs to be told, the magic and the love that’s behind Peter Pan.”

Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland national Broadway tour lands in Great Falls Nov. 20. Photo courtesy Finding Neverland show

Since not much is known about Llewelyn Davies or the nature of her relationship with Barrie, Gibbs said she gets to play the part off her own characteristics.

“It’s really important to me to tell stories that don’t always get told,” she said. “I love being able to tell the story and woman who has gone through a lot of pain and loss, she’s strong and able to find love again. There’s so much power behind telling that story, such solace and hopefully it can heal many, many people.”

For tour director Mia Walker, the show highlights the power of imagination, art and taking risks.

The story in Finding Neverland is “completely timeless,” and as an artist, she is “interested in stories on how people find inspiration.”

The story deal with “loss and things all of us have to deal with, as well as the courage to continue loving,” she said.

“Storytelling is age-old,” Walker said. “Finding Neverland is really all of that. The power of imagination, the power of art, creating, taking risks. When artists create things that become timeless, they have to take risks to do it.”

Walker was part of the original Broadway show and as tour director, she cast the actors and prepared the show for the tour, which is a different animal than staying in the same New York theater for nights on end.

“It’s a really fascinating thing,” she said of taking a Broadway show on tour.

They keep the show virtually the same, but have to make a physical production that is able to fit in a set number of trucks and be set up and taken down sometimes in the same night for the national tour.

Finding Neverland is the first show in this year’s Broadway in Great Falls series, a part of the Great Falls Symphony.

Their season is already well underway with several upcoming performances.

For a relatively small city off the beaten path, the touring Broadway shows and symphony bring in high quality casts and productions.

But even with those high-caliber performances, it can be a challenge to fill every seat in the Mansfield Theater.

Grant Harville, the symphony’s music director, said he believes the best way to develop younger audiences for the performing arts is through education.

Harville, himself a conductor, composer and vocalist who also plays the tuba, violin and piano, said “if you grow up with the symphony, you stay with the symphony.”

Within the symphony, they have similar conversations to those currently being held in public forums with city government and business leaders: how do we engage 20 and 30 somethings?

They’re often starting careers, buying houses and having kids.

For young adults, their lives often revolve around their kids and those schedules may keep them away from the symphony or performing arts, Harville said.

They also work to keep ticket prices within reach for local families, but have to cover their costs, particularly for the large Broadway productions that involve a lot of labor costs for set up and tear down, as well the show fees, said Hillary Rose Shepherd, the symphony’s executive director.

In an effort to highlight the performing arts in Great Falls and make the symphony more accessible, Harville and Shepherd are planning the symphony’s first free family concert for March 2019 at the Mansfield Theater.

Harville said there’s always some tension between serving the symphony’s mission and growing their audience with serving the community though it might not translate into ticket sales.

“Do we hope the free family concert builds goodwill and gets people in the door, yes,” Harville said. “But it’s also a good thing to do.”

They’re able to create the free concert, Harville said, thanks to a contribution from a community member.

Since its 1959 founding, the symphony has since added the Symphonic Choir, and traditionally presents a seven concert symphony series, a chamber music series and the Broadway in Great Falls series. It also includes full-time resident chamber ensembles, the Cascade String Quartet and the Chinook Winds Quintet; a Youth Orchestra Program including two orchestral ensembles serving northcentral Montana students ages 11 to 19; and an education and outreach program serving Montana rural and urban communities.

In their effort to encourage the arts and future symphony goers, the symphony has a youth matinée program for local students.

Harville said it’s very interactive and they encourage a certain amount of rowdiness. It also helps build pride in their community since the students see “an institution within the city that brings people together,” Harville said.

They’re also working to expand their youth orchestra programs that give young musicians the chance to experience auditions and performing with other students. The symphony also provides scholarships to help cover the cost of private lessons for students.

“We don’t want money to be a barrier,” Harville said.

Having so many groups means that they can’t all be part of the regular concert program, but they perform for local retirement homes, hospitals and other similar settings.

“We get those kinds of requests all the time,” Shepherd said. “They don’t have the budget to pay us and we don’t have the budget not to get paid, so that meets that need.”

The symphony and other performing arts are also generating revenue for the city and local economy.

During the 2017-2018 season, the symphony paid $240,000 to local musicians, $213,000 to local artists and administrative staff, and $79,000 to staff through the local union.

The symphony sold 17,000 tickets generating an estimated $1 million in local tourism dollars and about 21 percent of patrons came from out of town, according to symphony and tourism data. Tickets sales also generated about $122,000 for the Mansfield Theater, through ticketing fees, convenience fees, credit card fees, merchandise sales, rent and labor fees, according to the symphony.

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, the Mansfield Box Office issued a total of 32,227 tickets, grossing $927,112 in sales, according to city budget documents.

The city is currently reviewing the fee structure for the theater and convention center and those proposed changes will likely come before the City Commission later this winter.

The Great Falls Symphony is unique in that it’s the only one in Montana with a paid, professional core of musicians.

Beyond the economic impact, the performing arts in Great Falls can offer inspiration for future musicians and Broadway stars.

Finding Neverland’s Walker graduated from Harvard in 2010 and Gibbs graduated from Elon University in 2017.

“That would be the ideal and the dream to be an inspiration to someone,” Gibbs said. “I just hope that any woman looks at me and says ‘that’s a normal girl, it could be me,’ no matter size, age, race, anything. I hope they see that there’s a place for them in theater, if it can happen to me, it can happy to anybody.”

Gibbs has two older sisters who were in the arts and she was always backstage helping out. She remembers being in the third grade and her school had an elective to be in a musical. Everyone got to be in the show, but they still have to audition, which included singing a solo, a dance call and a monologue.

Finding Neverland

The national Broadway tour of Finding Neverland comes to Great Falls on Nov. 20. Photo courtesy ofFinding Neverland

Gibbs said that in the third and fourth grade, she only got singing parts. She remembers asking her director what it would take to get just one line.

“I just wanted to be a part of the story in some way,” she said.

The director told her to work on her monologue, which she worked so hard on that she can still recite every word.

At the next audition, Gibbs did her monologue and the director “threw down her hands on the table and said now we can put on a show. I remember that moment so clearly.”

Initially, she had plans to go into the medical field, but switched to arts in college.

“I realized the power that’s behind musical theater,” she said.

She graduated last year and moved to New York City last fall and had been getting auditions for roles she didn’t feel were a fit.

It was a surprise, she said, to land a lead in Finding Neverland.

“I’m so excited to be playing this woman who’s so strong and powerful and so gentle at the same time,” she said of her role as Sylvia. “I don’t know how that happened for me, but I’m so lucky that it did. I had no clue that this was going to be in my future.”

In addition to being a working Broadway actress, she has a larger goal to change what it means to be a powerful woman in musical theater.

“Often it’s so delicate, the idea of a leading lady, I have a personal goal to change it,” Gibbs said. “I want to show that women are so much more than maybe two characteristics in a beautiful tiny package.”

Taking a Broadway show on the road, “we go to some really small theaters and towns that don’t typically get that kind of show,” Gibbs said. “Those audiences are the most appreciative. Theater is also an escape, so for two hours we have the honor and the privilege and also the responsibility of making people smile.

For Walker, theater has been a lifelong love.

“I think it’s crucial,” she said of bringing shows to smaller communities. “I think it’s a really powerful thing to be able to show people the arts. You ask people working in New York on Broadway how they got started and many of them will say they saw a touring show. I think it really does make an impact in people’s lives.”

Walker said they’ve had people write to the Finding Neverland team about how much the show affected them when it was on Broadway and now as it tours the country.

“I think a lot of shows do that,” she said. “To be able to bring the experience of live theater to audiences all around the county is very important and meaningful.”

Tickets to Finding Neverland, which starts at 7:30 p.m. at the Mansfield Theater on Nov. 20, are still available here. Tickets to upcoming symphony shows are available here.