Kevin Kern on 'Finding Neverland': Time is the villain

Kevin Kern. Finding Neverland

EDITOR’S NOTE: The first national touring production of Finding Neverland opens in Denver on Dec. 20. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore was given exclusive access to the principal cast and creative team, and we are posting his extensive interviews in a seven-part series here on the DCPA NewsCenter. Part 6: Kevin Kern, who plays the playwright J.M. Barrie. Next: Tom Hewitt.

The radical playwright implored all who encountered Peter Pan to hang on to the fun of childhood throughout their lives.

By John Moore
For the DCPA NewsCenter

Not many people “got” J. M. Barrie during his time. But Broadway actor Kevin Kern gets Barrie.

Kern plays Barrie in the national touring production of Finding Neverland, the story of how the inventor of Peter Pan found his calling – and his voice – with the inspiration he finds in a widow and her four young sons.

“I have four kids back at home,” said Kern. “And the thing I know about having kids is that you just want to stop them from growing up, because it happens so fast. And then you start to think about your own life and how it has gone by so fast.”  

Peter Pen remains a popular cultural icon, and a continuing source for new stories, because it doesn’t just speak to children. It speaks to the man, the father and the inner child in millions of dads like Kern.

Kevin Kern in 'Finding Neverland.' Photo by Carol Rosegg. “I’m 42, and the older I get, time just seems to speed up,” he said. “Time is actually a villain in our show. The crocodile has swallowed a clock, and he’s always chasing us – and that means time is always chasing us. Everybody can relate to that fear because time is chasing all of us. But the main idea behind Peter Pan is that you can stop time.

J. M. Barrie introduced the world to the boy who would never grow up. But wasn’t saying that we Wendys should never grow up ourselves. “He was saying that you should hang on to the fun of childhood throughout your life – especially when you have children yourself,” said Kern.

“I think most of the people who live to be 100 years old tend to be happy-go-lucky people who fully embrace their inner child. And our show fully embraces that idea.”

(Pictured above right: Family man Kevin Kern with his onstage family in ‘Finding Neverland.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.)

Kern is a quintessential family man who has appeared on Broadway in Finding Neverland, The Bridges of Madison County, First Date, Wicked, The Wedding Singer, and Les Misérables, where he was the final Marius when the original Broadway production that closed in 2003. He says his 15-year-old son and three daughters (13, 11 and 4) aren’t surprised by anything they see him do on stage.

“My girls came to see me in The Bridges of Madison County, and somebody said to my wife, ‘Is this appropriate for them to see?’ Because I was sort of making out with a girl the whole time,” Kern said with a laugh. “But I thought, ‘Well, they have already seen me naked onstage in Hair, so I think I’ve already destroyed their childhood.’ ”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

That said, shows don’t come more family appropriate than Finding Neverland, which is based on the 2004 Oscar-winning film of the same name. Oddly enough, the same can’t be said of the original play. Barrie was considered a radical when he introduced Peter Pan to London theatregoers a century ago. No one put children on the stage back then. No one told stories about children. And certainly no one but Barrie had the audacity to tell a story where the only adult with an active supervisory interest in the children was the family dog.

“It’s so hard for us to understand how dangerous this play was for J. M. Barrie’s career, because almost everything now is geared toward children,” Kern said. In our story, the producer Charles Frohman says, ‘Children can’t buy a ticket! Adults buy tickets!’ and it always gets a laugh. Because producers have come to understand that parents will more easily spend money on their kids than on anything else.

“It’s also a very a British thing. Britain was very class-structured, and very gender-structured, and very age-structured – and still is to this day,” Kern said. “Children really were meant to be seen and not heard. Parents didn’t even really hang out with their kids back then. They would send them away to boarding schools.”

Kevin Kern. Tom Hewitt. Finding Neverland. Photo by Carol Rosegg.  Kern has been with Finding Neverland since it opened on Broadway in 2015. As understudy to Matthew Morrison, he occasionally went on as Barrie in New York. When he was offered the role on the road, Kern and wife Megan Lawrence decided the opportunity to own the role for the start of the road tour was one he could not pass up. Director Diane Paulus calls Kern “a genius in the role who sings it like no one else. He is such a generous soul and an incredible father” – praise that made Kern tear up a bit upon hearing it.

As a witness to the entire creation process, Kern promises that the touring production is appreciably improved from the Broadway show that closed in August. That’s because he says the creative team that includes choreographer Mia Michaels, writer James Graham and composers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy have never stopped working on it.

“The first 20 minutes of the show have been completely re-written for the road,” Kern said. “It has different songs and new dialogue that really explains what is happening in a much more concise, understandable way.”

(Pictured above right: Kevin Kern as J. M. Barrie and Tom Hewitt as Captain Hook in ‘Finding Neverland,’ opening Dec. 20 in Denver. Photo by Carol Rosegg.) 

Video preview: Finding Neverland national touring production

Here is more of John Moore’s conversation with Kevin Kern:

John Moore: Why was this the right show for you to take on the road when it would mean so much time away from your family?

Kevin Kern: It’s just a great role, and it just fits me so well. It fits my voice so well. And I just have so much fun doing it. I’m not going to be out here forever. The thing you have to understand is that I have done a lot of original Broadway shows, but I have really been a ‘career swing,’ which means I mostly cover actors playing all these different roles. I love being a swing. It can be very artistically rewarding because you’ve got to be so creative and quick on your feet. But I have never gotten to create a role. We have changed so much of this show from Broadway that it was almost like creating a new role from scratch. And that has been fantastic.

John Moore: Have you noticed any difference in the way the show is being received in the heartland compared to Broadway?

Kevin Kern: When they started talking about taking us out on tour, I said, ‘Guys. The Midwest will eat our show up.’ I’m from Cincinnati, so I know these people. I am one of these people. One thing that’s great about New Yorkers is that they really embrace their edginess. But the thing about the people in the Midwest is that they embrace their politeness.

Video: Kevin Kern in the final performance of Les Misérables in 2003

John Moore: So what was it like to be the last Marius in the original Broadway production of Les Misérables?

Kevin Kern: I was 23 when I first got into the show, and when we closed I was 29. It gives me goosebumps just to think about that final performance. Anybody who had ever done the show was in that audience. Nothing will ever compare to it. It was a dream-come-true to finally be Marius, and it was such a cool thing to be the last one.

John Moore: What’s one thing you want to get off your chest?

Kevin Kern: In the typically liberal world of show business, I am probably a little more conservative than most. Having grown up in Ohio, which is a purple state, I realized when I moved to New York how great it was that I come from a place where people can actually talk to each other as neighbors who happen to have different opinions. I want to encourage people to embrace the fact that just because somebody has a different opinion, don’t vilify them or deify yourself. They might have a real reason they feel the way they do.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Finding Neverland: Ticket information
• Dec 20 through Jan. 1
• Buell Theatre
• Cast talkback: After the Dec. 21 performance
• ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Dec. 30
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829 

Selected Previous NewsCenter coverage:
Finding Neverland
creative team, Part 1: Director Diane Paulus
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 2: Choreographer Mia Michaels
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 3: Composers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 4: Book writer James Graham
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 5: Actor Christine Dwyer (Sylvia)
Diane Paulus on the rise of ‘adventure theatre’
Finding Neverland flies onto Denver Center’s 2016-17 Broadway season

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