On Thursday, two days into a week of technical rehearsals for the musical "Finding Neverland," the opulent auditorium of Shea's Performing Arts Center looked like a Rococo version of NASA mission control.
Crew members hunched over huge black tables spread with reams of paper and illuminated by computer monitors. White sheets printed with numbers lined the front of the stage to help director Diane Paulus and her team place performers on the stage. A chandelier hung, unlit, against a backdrop of a city park.
In little more than a week, that chandelier will flicker to life and the seats now supporting those tables will be filled with theatergoers eager to see a polished and retooled "Finding Neverland," a musical about the creator of "Peter Pan," which closed its 17-month Broadway run in August.
Among them will be Harvey Weinstein, the film producer who got his start as a concert promoter in Buffalo and chose this theatrical adaptation of the 2004 film about "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie as his first major Broadway venture. The Buffalo-bred touring production, encouraged in part by a New York State tax credit designed to stimulate the upstate economy, is the first major national tour to launch here in recent memory.
Paulus, the artistic director of Boston's American Repertory Theatre and the driving force behind lauded revivals of "Hair," "Pippin" and "Porgy and Bess," took a break from Thursday's rehearsal to chat in one of Shea's private boxes.
"We hit the ground running," said Paulus, who arrived in Buffalo with almost the entire cast and creative team on the same flight from LaGuardia Airport on Wednesday. A few hours later, they were hard at work in Shea's, where the show's set pieces had arrived a week earlier.
In fact, Paulus and her team of collaborators have been working on "Finding Neverland" for the past three years, even while juggling other projects. And in an effort to get as much life out of the show as possible, they wasted no time between the close of the Broadway production and the reimagined version Buffalonians will see next week.
While the original was wrapping its run this summer, Paulus held a workshop for the tour. Rehearsals began shortly after Labor Day in New York City.
And the changes go beyond tweaks. They involve the insertion of two new songs to Gary Barlow's score, changes to lyrics by Barlow and Eliot Kennedy and rewrites to James Graham's book.
"Our producers ... all supported using this tour and this premiere in Buffalo as an opportunity to continue the creative work," Paulus said. She added that she and her creative team always ask themselves the same question during transitions from one venue to the next, whether from American Repertory Theatre to Broadway or Broadway to the road:
"If we had another shot as a creative team, what could we do better? How could we make the storytelling even more impactful?"
The answer, in this case, was to retool the first 15 or 20 minutes of the musical, which restores two songs that never made it past John Legend's rendition on the show's concept album. Paulus called one of the songs, "My Imagination," "one of their best songs ever that landed in my inbox."
"We’ve reimagined the opening launch to immerse the audience into the storytelling," she said. "There’s [also] refining of the staging, improvement to the text. We’re like a painter going in and tightening, touching, streamlining, just making the show as elegant and powerful as it can be."
For Paulus, who is best known for her work with revivals, "Finding Neverland" provided an opportunity to help create a new work almost from scratch, using the Weinstein-produced 2004 film of the same name as a blueprint.
"The challenge is double what a revival is," Paulus said. "And yet, on the flip side, it’s almost doubly rewarding because you’re hearing it with an audience for the first time."
The essence of the show, she added, is about the difficulty of finding and realizing an artistic vision -- in this case J.M. Barrie's creation of the iconic character of Peter Pan and the many challenges he faced in bringing it to the stage.
That process in some senses mirrors the difficulty of producing "Finding Neverland," which overcame its own series of well-publicized stumbling blocks on its way from Weinstein's imagination to the Broadway stage. Those challenges included the replacement of the show's entire original creative team after Weinstein's first attempt to produce it in 2011 and the resignation of high-profile publicist Rick Miramontez from the Broadway production after a disagreement with Weinstein over media coverage of the $20 million show.
"Sometimes we forget the difficulty of the journey. But in a way, I think the reason I love the theater and I keep doing is that it’s actually that journey, with all its ups and downs, which is what makes it all worth it. If it were all just easy-breezy, I wouldn’t be so obsessed with it," she said. "The lows make the highs even more high, and it’s so encouraging to know that when, in life, that when you hit a low, you’re going to bounce back. That sometimes the darkest moment in your life is there for a reason, because it’s going to shoot you back up to a place you never dreamt you could go to."
After a journey from the screen to the stage, Paulus said, she's thrilled to be leading what she called "a brilliant touring company" and relaunching a show whose themes ring true with her own career as a director.
"Why I’m so excited to be here in Buffalo is because the story just keeps giving back. It’s a story that has a lot of depth, a lot of emotion, and it’s really about the human spirit of resilience," she said. "It’s actually a story that shows that you can find resilience and when times are tough, there’s a way to navigate through that and triumph."