I suspect most reaction to Peter Pan Live will be split down the middle by those who just absolutely adored it, and those who hated it. People so often love to say something was The Best thing they've ever seen, or The Worst. And this production lends itself to hyperbole in either direction. For me, though, I don't think the extremes are accurate. There was a lot that was quite wonderful in it, and a lot that I didn't feel worked.
(In that regard, I was going to title this article, "Peter Panned," but I decided that that would be unfair and inaccurate for the sake of a good quip.)
First the good.
I thought it was an extremely impressive production, and the show of Peter Pan is so terrific with such wonderful songs that there was a huge amount to be enjoyed. It's also remarkable to do such a massive, intricate production on live television and pull it off with almost no glitches. At most, I saw only a few small hiccups. I thought Allison Williams performed with a great deal of skill and very clear professionalism, and Christopher Walken is always a pleasure to watch, whatever he does, no matter how odd. I like when productions take risks, and this took them throughout, and it was well done.
Now, the not good.
I came into this with admitted deep affection for the Mary Martin version. But I've seen two other productions with Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby, and found them both terrific. And I even liked the darker, totally different TV adaptation by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse with Mia Farrow and Danny Kaye. So, I sat down with great hope to love this, even if it wasn't "The Same As...."
Alas, I found it a listless production. And Peter Pan, if anything, is supposed to be the opposite of listless. There were nice, fun moments throughout, but very rarely did id soar. And for a show where people fly, boy, it should soar throughout.
I was going to start with the character of Peter, but decided that Captain Hook stood out more. Because as much as Chrisopher Walken is a pleasure whatever his choices, so many of his choices here seemed disconnected with what was going on around him. He seemed sort of bored, too, and also like no one remembered to tell him it was a comedy and where the jokes were. Yes, Captain Hook is the crookedest crook in the world, so it's fine to be actually menacing at times (even if those times were few and far between) -- but c'mon, guy, you're on an island with flying boys who don't grow up, Indians, fairies, pirates and mermaids. Have a sense of the world surrounding you. Too often, he seemed to me more lost than the Lost Boys.
As I said, I thought Allison Williams performed very well. And showed a real sweetness -- though I'm not sure if sweetness is the best quality for Peter. This is someone who Wendy immediately tells when she first meets him, "You're conceited," and the fun is that he knows it and revels in it. He can fly, after all. He's gotta crow. Here, though, Peter sort of matter-of-factly acknowledges that, yes, he's conceited. When they hired a lesser-known actress, I figured it was because she was so spectacular that she blew everyone away, and unfortunately I found her reserved. Little sense of Youth, Joy and Freedom. Not much swagger. She has an excellent voice, and sang her songs well, performing them very nicely, is a good actress, and had a good way about her in everything, but there was none of the lively, funny, bragging bravado that's at the heart of who The Boy Who Won't Grow Up is. It definitely had its moments of high spirits but overall was more solid and straight forward.
Related to this, I thought it was a mistake to use British accents because everyone -- and in particularly Ms. Williams -- seemed like they were concentrating to get it right, when in a live production they probably had other, far-greater things that should be on their minds. And that too might have helped contribute to the listlessness. Besides which, not all the actors handled the accents well and dialogue got lost.
Oddly, my biggest complaint, since it continued throughout the evening, might have been the awful casting of the Lost Boys, who all looked like they grew up long ago. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them were nearing their 30s. What on earth were they thinking??? If the excuse is that this was a live production so they needed more experience with the actors-- sorry, that doesn't wash. The original 1954 Mary Martin production was live on TV, too, and they survived just fine with boys in the roles of...boys. (And boys, too, have played the roles live on stage when Peter Pan has been done on Broadway.)
I was okay with the new songs, they didn't add a lot, but were fun. As I suspected, "What a Wonderful World Without Peter" -- because it was based on a song I love that has such a lively tune -- was (for me) the most enjoyable, though the staging was strangely flat. I liked hearing the song that had been cut from the original production, "When I Went Home," and thought it might have been Allison William's best performance. Very heart breaking. I can see why it was originally cut, and it wasn't necessary here, but worked fine. And their shifting of the song, "Distant Melody" and giving it to Wendy rather than Peter worked well here, as the lullaby she sings that makes the boys so homesick.
However, I found the rewritten book sloppy. It came across as sort of a jumble. The script did smooth out a couple of plot points, but overall felt like cut-and-paste, with scene transitions often not making sense. For instance, in the original, Tiger Lilly and the Indians are guarding the Lost Boys' home below, when they're attacked by the pirates. That's why Peter and the others know why there's a fight going on, and why they know a drum beat means the Indians supposedly won. Here, though, the Lost Boys just suddenly hear noise above, presume it must be a fight between the Indians and pirates, and just apparently figure that the Indians will beat the drum when they win. I have no idea why they changed the set-up -- it saved maybe 15 seconds of dialogue. And removed logic.
Speaking of which, I also have no idea why, when Peter comes to save the day on the pirate ship, they had him climb on board with Tiger Lilly. The show is called "Peter Pan." He saves everyone. It felt like they were trying to be politically correct...except they didn't do much of anything with it. (Besides which, Tiger Lilly's supposed to have been captured with all the other Indians during that earlier fight. Not here though, for some inexplicable reason.)
As I feared, not having the same actor play the father and Hook was indeed an unfortunate choice. It was utterly silly having Christian Bohrle play Mr. Darling and Smee (I'll bet cash money a lot of kids and even adults didn't even know it was the same actor, making it pointless, as well), and also importantly took away from the dramatic point of the father and Hook being the same person. It was empty -- and also added more to the sense of listlessness, since the father-Hook dramatic tension was gone.
Somewhat similarly, using a real dog to be Nana was a "casting" mistake. It was hardly terrible, and had a sense of fun -- hey, it's hard not to like an adorable dog -- but the sense of added fun was very small compared to what was lost. There are several specific reasons all productions use the same actor to play both the dog and the crocodile -- obviously, of course, there's the simplicity of not having to train a dog, but it's also (just like with the father and Hook) one more emotional connection between the home nursery and Neverland. But even further, the dog has an actual character role to play and things to do on stage. Not just “be there” and be a family dog that’s protective. The dog is the children’s actual nanny -- that's why they call it 'Nana', after all. It was okay having a real dog, but was just one more thing that took away from the sense of fantasy.
I also thought it was a very poor decision to have young Wendy walk off at the same time grown-up Wendy walks on. This completely removed the dramatic moment when Peter returns and talks with Wendy in the dark, and then the lamp light comes up to reveal that she's grown up. It's an important moment and a point of the play, and the moment was gone. Because she's already been revealed.
And that brings me to one final issue, that deals with something so central to any production of Peter Pan, and may well be one of the first things people think of when they think of Peter Pan -- flying
Even the old 1954 Mary Martin version hid the wires far better than they did here. I don't downgrade a production because you can see the wires -- we know they're there, after all -- but it's just an observation that couldn't be missed. And I mention it too because it brings up the additional, related matter that, to me, something seemed off with the flying in general --
My favorite thing in Peter Pan (which I've mentioned here in the past) -- and in fact one of my favorite things in all stage musicals I've seen -- is what's called the Aerial Ballet, when Peter and the children break out of the bedroom and fly to Neverland. It's a glorious stage moment as Peter is soaring across the sky, with the Darlings giddily zooming around him. And for whatever reason, the way they staged the sequence here was a dud, just having Peter trying to gather everyone together in a bunch. Very empty. And deeply listless. Indeed, there was a lot of this sort of flying oddity in the show, when characters are supposed to fly in, but just show up. Peter's legendary entrance -- one of the greatest entrances in all theater -- swooooooping into the bedroom -- felt here almost like a quick pop-in. When Wendy is shot with an arrow, she's supposed to flutter down from the sky. But here they just pointed and basically said, "Look, there she is," already lying on the ground. There were other moments like these. Perhaps they were limited by the soundstage's logistics -- except that they did the show in a massive structure where the lunar module had been built. And not that I want to bring up the 1954 production again, but they were able manage all the flying just fine, in a regular TV studio.
To be clear, despite all this criticism, I didn't remotely dislike the production at all -- the show is far too good for that, and actors were all very talented.. I enjoyed it. And I also didn't mind Christopher Walken having a lot of seriousness in his performance, and that there was sadness emphasized more here than in other productions. Menace and loss and heartbreak is a valid part of Peter Pan. So, there was a lot that was very good, and overall it was a pleasure to watch. And I suspect there were people who understandably loved it, and I trust that it will get big ratings, which I hope is the case. But in the end, the core of the musical Peter Pan is Youth, Joy and Freedom and charm and whimsy. The morning of the broadcast I had written to a friend how my main hope was, with all the changes I'd read about, that ultimately that sense of charm and whimsy would be there. But it wasn't. It was good and impressively produced. They pulled it off, which is no small feat with something this elaborate and that took risks, which I admire. And much was excellent. But Peter Pan should make your heart soar. And this tended to have its feet solidly on the ground.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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