It's not that Peter Pan Live! was an abomination.
We really wanted it to be good. We really wanted not to fall into the hate-tweet trap. And, to be fair, it was, at times, a hoot. Few things in life rival Christopher Walken rocking Chola eyebrows and a Cindy Crawford beauty mark, and Allison Williams makes one handsome boy.
No, it’s not that Peter Pan Live! was the Sound of Music Live! train wreck our heads are still spinning over, like Carrie Underwood twirling maniacally on a soundstage hilltop. It’s that Peter Pan Live! was boring. For all of its large-scale production numbers danced expertly by an army of Lost Boy twinks and psychedelic sets designed by someone clearly flying high on some strong fairy dust, the most egregious thing about Peter Pan Live! was that it was an inexcusable bore.
For three hours. The thing was three freaking hours.
But, again, it’s important to stress all of the happy thoughts there are to be had about the production. While there might not have been enough to make it truly take flight, there certainly was enough good to note to at least get a Wendy Bird flapping her wings.
First, and foremost, there’s the aforementioned performance by Christopher Walken as Captain Hook, which alternated between inspired brilliance and an apparent lack of awareness that he was even on national television, depending on a scene. At one glance, he’s doing the Tarantella and it is as fierce as his feathered cap. In the next, he’s opening his mouth to sing and there is blatantly no noise coming out, or just flat out forgetting his lines altogether.
Allison Williams as Peter Pan, on the other hand, was the worst thing the iconic cross-dressing orphan with the Oedipus complex could be: Just fine. Allison Williams sang… well. Her accent was… fine. Her stage presence was… there. It was strange, then. She looked like a Peter Pan. She crowed like a Peter Pan. But she just wasn’t Peter Pan.
That Williams wasn’t half bad actually illuminated the biggest problem with Peter Pan Live!. The other half—the show itself—kind of is. It’s been a few years—decades, really—since we played out our VHS tapes of Mary Martin’s indelible performance as the boy who won’t grow up, and unlike Peter, we apparently do forget. Chiefly, we forgot the many, many problems there are with the bones—the book and score—to this show.
For example, it’s so slow in the beginning. Musicals typically start with a bang. Peter Pan starts with a bore. It literally opens with people going to bed. The first song is a lullaby. The splendid Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling is actually cooing at us to “fall asleep.” (Side note: Broadway fans must be geeking out with pride over the oh-so classy and lovely mainstream debut of their beloved Tony-nominated musical queen, Kelli O’Hara.)
Then there’s the fact that most of the dialogue, particularly anything uttered by a pirate, makes sense only half of the time. (Though there’s no superlative worthy of describing what it’s like to watch Walken say the line, “I’ve placed the plank on the poop.”) There are weird things about Peter Pan, the musical, that you can’t fault for Peter Pan Live!, the production, for. The script has always been a little bit batty, what with the not-so thinly veiled racism and the whole Peter calling Wendy “mother” but also so clearly wanting to bone her the whole time. And Captain Hook just basically being a bitter, vengeful drag queen.
There were, however, specific decisions made by the creative team of Peter Pan Live! And many of those decisions made no sense. Like, why were all the Lost Boys in Neverland dressed like German schoolchildren, but Peter was dressed like the fairy hobo birthed from the bushes that we all know and love? Did the producers just reuse the Von Trapp children from last year and hope that no one would notice?
There was also an off-putting conflict between whimsy and realism. The sets—which, really, were a feat of design and direction—appeared to be remnants of a Lewis Carroll fever dream. Tiger Lily and her tribe, however, were outfitted in semi-realistic outfits (read: nearly naked). And, with the exception of Walken and his band of pirates, every actor’s performance carried with it a sedated earnestness that clashed with the trippy design aesthetic, making much of the production lack the necessary twinkle.
But, reliably, just when it seemed like the production was going to go the way of Tinker Bell and die in spite of itself, a rousing, entertainment production number would reenergize things again and earn the kind of applause that would bring it back to life.
“Wendy” and “Never Grow Up” are just about as charming as large-scale production numbers get, and the cast of Lost Boy dancers sold every pirouette and donkey kick of the rousing choreography. A tamed-down, blessedly less racist production number featuring Tiger Lily and her tribe where “Ugg-a-Wugg” used to be was the strongest example of why filming these live musicals for TV can be a truly elevating and great form of entertainment. And Christopher Walken warbling and doing a little soft-shoe? You haven’t lived until you’ve seen it.
Even “I’m Flying,” with the actors’ safety harnesses easily visible and their aerial rigs and ropes streaking the TV screen every time they took to the air, was a wonder to behold on screen. Goddammit if the spirit of J.M. Barrie doesn’t get to you when watching this show—there’s a kid in all of us who doesn’t want to grow up, who just gets giddy when humans, rigs and all, start flying before your eyes.
Hell, you might have been so won over that when the handsome lady in the boys clothing stared into the camera and demanded that the children around the world clap, affirming that they believed in fairies and bringing a dying Tinker Bell back to life, you’d be damned if you didn’t start absent-mindedly slapping your palms together. (Oh this happened, and Williams sold it in all of its campy glory.)
But that there was so much to praise and the three-hour production was still such a slog reiterates, really, what a treasure Mary Martin is (and, for that matter, her fellow iconic Peters, Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby), and how much this show hinges on divine casting—and how magical it can be when the casting is done right.
Williams had moments where you think, “Hey, she’s pretty good.” Of course, in her Neverland they bleach your teeth so white they glow and Madonna coaches you on your convincing British accent. But there was gumption there. But much like Peter Pan himself, she’s hindered by a pesky shadow—in this case, the legend of her predecessors.
If the amount of attention Peter Pan Live! received on Twitter and the mammoth ratings Sound of Music Live! received last year is any indication, NBC will continue its fun, noble experiment of live musical theatre as special-event television. Honestly, it is a joy to have these musicals on TV, even if the execution hasn’t been, thus far, top-notch.
But that’s when you channel your inner Peter, and call on the famous line: “Every time a child says they don’t believe in fairies another one falls down dead.” We really do believe that there’s the potential for greatness here, that NBC can, at some point, put on a spectacular musical event. We don’t want this experiment to die. It could be great.
But then again, we’ve all said we believed in fairies before, and we all know what still happened to Tinker Bell:
We better get to clapping.