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'Finding Neverland' actor finds his way home to South Florida

At the ripe old age of 12 (he turns 13 in July), Ben Krieger is well on his way to becoming a Broadway show veteran. The preteen from Palm Beach Gardens already has two national tours under his belt with “Pippin” and “The Sound of Music.” Now, he’s coming back to his home region with the road tour of “Finding Neverland,” which runs June 13-25 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.

“I’ve been touring for like, basically, two years,” Krieger says from a tour stop in Tampa. “It’s really been hard, because I have to kind of handle my own life. I’m kind of by myself. My parents can’t always come with me on the road. But it’s also kind of a good thing. It’s taught me how to be really independent and mature.”

That was apparent when he auditioned for the role of Peter Llewelyn Davies in “Finding Neverland,” the 2012 musical about the story behind the writer J.M Barrie’s inspiration for “Peter Pan.”

“We had worked with Ben on the first national tour of ‘Pippin,’ ” director Diane Paulus (“Pippin,” “Hair,” “Porgy and Bess”) recalls in an interview via email. “When he came in to audition for ‘Finding Neverland,’ we were thrilled because we had been struck by his maturity and professionalism and knew we wanted to work with him again. Ben became our primary Peter when we opened the ‘Finding Neverland’ tour. Ben is an old soul — he has the intelligence and sensitivity to play Peter, along with his uncannily beautiful voice. He has been an integral part of this tour and, as many of the cast and crew can attest, he is wise beyond his years.”

When he’s home, Krieger attends Arthur I. Meyer Jewish Academy in Palm Beach Gardens. As with the other tours, Krieger has an adult guardian while traveling with “Finding Neverland.” He and the other children in the cast work with a tutor and virtual online school programs from noon to 4 p.m. “He has another job. He’s also our ‘child wrangler,’ ” Krieger says of the tutor. “It’s a funny term we gave him. He makes sure we all stay in one spot. He makes sure we go where we’re supposed to be. He makes sure we go onstage at the right time.”

During his downtime, Krieger has become an avid poster on his own YouTube channel, playing the ukulele and singing covers of Ed Sheeran, Jason Mraz, Bruno Mars and Twenty One Pilots.

“That started right before I went on tour. I’ve been playing the ukulele for about two years. I wanted to play some songs for people. I was posting them in Instagram, but they can only be a minute-long video, so I thought, ‘Hmm, I’ll try YouTube.’ It’s so much bigger than what I’m used to. Now, I have a little over 1,000 subscribers.”

Krieger’s first experience in professional theater was at Maltz Jupiter Theatre where he was a cast member of “Fiddler on the Roof” in 2014 and then got a starring role a year later in “Les Miserable.”

“In ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ I didn’t do a lot in that show,” he says. “I was kind of an extra in the background. The first show where I got to perform eight shows a week for three weeks was ‘Les Miz.’ It was such an incredible experience. It showed me what a real actor does, and it was my first show with adults with me. I was used to children’s theater.”

Krieger says it was his run in “Les Miserable” that convinced him that he should become a professional stage performer.

“The first time I came onstage as Gavroche, I came out on these huge steps so tall my mom was crying. She could hardly see me because I was so high up in the air,” he remembers. “That was the first time I thought, ‘This is the best feeling in the world.’ ”

So in April 2015, it was off to New York for a round of auditions. Two months later, he landed the role of Theo in the first national tour of the revival of ‘Pippin,” also directed by Paulus. There were qualities from that audition that Paulus says are still in place with his performances in “Finding Neverland.”

“He was such a ‘pro,’ after having done other professional shows.” Paulus says. “But what is so special about Ben is even though he has so much theater experience for someone of his age, he is still a real kid. He has an honesty about him that makes his performance so strong, and he is such a treasure to be around. His audition made us see him in an even newer light because he had grown since the ‘Pippin’ tour and seemed ready to step into a role like Peter.”

And, of course, he has continued to grow. This means that his role has to be adjusted to accommodate that. As with the 2004 movie version, which starred Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, the stage musical “Finding Neverland” concerns how playwright Barrie is looking for subject matter after his latest production flops in London’s West End. He finds inspiration (to create a new play titled “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Never Grew Up”) in a platonic relationship with a widow and her four rambunctious sons, including Peter, the role played by Krieger. A few months ago, Paulus caught up with the tour and tinkered with the performance.

“We were in Las Vegas, performing at the Smith Center,” she recalls. “One of the realities of working with children on a long-running show is that you witness them grow — both in how they look and how they act. When we saw the show in Vegas, it was clear that Ben was no longer a ‘little boy.’ He had grown a few inches since opening, and his presence had changed. We had a rehearsal with him where we focused on the scene with Peter and Barrie in the back yard before they sing, ‘When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground.’ It is a very intense scene between these two characters, where Peter confronts Barrie. We focused on adjusting Ben’s blocking and the way he performed this scene and song, adapting his actions and approach more for a boy who is emerging into adolescence, rather than a young boy throwing a temper tantrum. Ben, being the pro that he is, was able to digest these adjustments and maintain them. It has been very special witnessing Ben grow into the role, and seeing how he has truly owned the material.”

For his part, Krieger says that despite being older and bigger (he is 2 or 3 inches taller and is now about 5-foot-3) his favorite part of the show is when he and the other child actors get to let loose on the number “We’re All Made of Stars” in Act Two.

“All of us boys are onstage drumming and singing, and I get to sort of scat in a way,” he says. “It’s really fun. That’s the part I enjoy every single day.”

None of his other tours came to South Florida while he was still in them, so the run of “Finding Neverland” in Fort Lauderdale is a first for Kreiger. He says his family and friends are beyond excited.

“I’ve lost track of how many people are coming to see us,” Krieger says. “At least 200. I think it helps me because I do this every night and it can get … a little bit slow, because I get so familiar with it. But being home and being with my family and having people I know come to the show will make me power through it and make it the best I’ve ever done.”

“Finding Neverland” runs June 13-25 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Avenue, in Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays (6:30 p.m. Sunday), with matinees 2 p.m. Saturdays (and Wednesday, June 21) and 1 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $35-$115. To order, call 954-462-0222 or go to BrowardCenter.org.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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