When The Sound of Music Live! aired on NBC last year, reactions were, you could say, mixed. And yet, despite the devil’s advocates, the optimists, the doomsdayers and naysayers, one thing was pretty consistently said: “YES. Please try again!”
And so we’re back, one year later. This time the musical is Peter Pan, and the beloved childhood memory under assault is the classic 1960 Mary Martin broadcast. NBC doesn’t get to claim this is their first time anymore, so the questions are, now that they’ve got one under their belt, was the second try better, and should they keep going?
I’m quite thrilled to say that the answer to both questions is, once again, “YES” and “Please try again!” Though certainly not perfect, Peter Pan Live! is nonetheless an across-the-board improvement on The Sound of Music, and a heartening evolution of the Live Broadcast format of producing a musical.
The first point in its favor is Derek McLane’s gorgeous production design. Starting in a stately Victorian bedroom and ending up in a pastel paradise sporting a map of Neverland on the ground, the broadcast is a feast for the senses, and McLane takes full advantage of the “we’re not on a stage” element to create sets that rotate, open to reveal other sets, and, in a moment where even I went “How did they do that?”, adjoin sets in ways hidden by the camera to have Peter and the Darlings instantaneously travel from London’s skies to Neverland.
Rob Ashford, one of Broadway’s biggest director/choreographers, directed Music last year and returns for Pan, finally able to show off his true choreographic strengths. The dance numbers all pop with an energy that seems to lack in he rest of the production, and the moves themselves are often quite clever. Tap-dancing pirates (and Walkens), patty-caking Lost Boys, and high-kicking members of Tiger Lily’s (Alanna Saunders) tribe populate the island with entertaining dance at every turn.
Directorially, Ashford calibrates the show in more a children’s theatre direction than a straight up musical theatre one, which works with Barrie’s book and Stein/Comden/Green/Other Green’s music. Right along with the set, the performances “pop” right out. It feels appropriate to the piece, and a better use of the hybrid format and scenic playground than last year’s starched melodrama of The Sound of Music.
Looking to the cast, Allison Williams enthusiastically leads the company as Peter. It’s an easy performance to nitpick, since there’s a lot of posing and posturing and instances of hopping off of notes quickly lest the pitch start to sag, but overall her work is quite fun. I’m the sort of audience member who likes to give points for “she looks like she’s having a ball”, and here that is definitely the case.
She sells the whizz-bang flying effects (some of the flyography is very cool), and there are a few moments of play, where Pan is goofing around or laughing, where Williams comes truly alive. If you’re not going to cast for pure brilliance in a role, this is what I would want from a stunt-cast celebrity in a musical – gusto, heart, commitment, and a strong match of actor to character. I believe we get all of that in Williams’ Pan.
As for Christopher Walken as Hook…it was Christopher Walken as Hook. In a performance certain to add volumes to your friends’ impression catalog, Walken delivers exactly the bizarre, halting, Walken-y performance you expect from him. It…never doesn’t work, let me put it that way. But it was definitely weird. He was certainly making choices, and I don’t think he was phoning it in. It was an off-kilter, minimalist take on the role, mostly talk-singing (although when he actually did venture onto pitches, I thought, “you have a nice voice, do that more!”) Allegedly one of Walken’s conditions for taking the role was the opportunity to tap dance, and he does allow us glimpses into his Broadway hoofer past. He’s actually a pretty smooth, charming dancer!
Elsewhere, you have your Broadway veterans rounding out the cast once again, chief among them Kelli O’Hara, singing beautifully as Mrs. Darling and lending class to the whole affair. Christian Borle, appearing here after playing Max in Music last year, doesn’t really register as a memorable Smee (he does make a good foil for Walken), but as Mr. Darling he puts on a well-defined, detailed character, especially strong in the moments where his warmth cracks through.
Taylor Louderman’s Wendy might just be the strongest work in the whole production. She’s just completely on-point, matched exactly right to the style of this production and the needs of her role. As the focal point for most of the Lost Boy/Pirate antics, she is required to have a hearty presence, and heart is certainly what she brings.
Rounding things out were a cadre of former Newsies and Broadway vets filling in the Lost Boy, Pirate, and Neverlandian Tribe roles. As mentioned before, the dancing is a highlight, and everyone seems keyed into the heightened style asked for by Ashford.
How were the changes to the show? Well, the songs added for Wendy and Mrs. Darling are absolutely superfluous, but I’ll never complain about getting to hear Kelli O’Hara sing, and Louderman handles her solo moment quite well, too. The tweaks to the song formerly known as “Ugg a Wug” were, to be honest, barely noticeable, except in that I didn’t feel the compulsion to cringe at any moment of the number. In other words, “True Blood Brothers” is an unobtrusive modification that, frankly, should have happened years ago.
The broadcast itself wasn’t perfectly smooth, as there were occasional bits where equipment could be seen, crew members could be heard, or, in the end, someone could be seen scurrying across the set in the dark of the Darling bedroom. For me, seeing a bit of equipment only served to make me wonder how the hell they were hiding it so well in some of the other, more kinetic numbers.
All in all, Peter Pan Live! was utterly charming. Flawed and occasionally flat, sure, but its heart is always on its sleeve and there’s enough genuine creativity on display for me to recommend checking it out, especially if you have kids.
Look to Allison Williams, when she turns directly to the camera to implore us to clap as hard as we can if we believe in fairies. You get the sense that Williams has been waiting for this moment the entire performance, and it’s definitely her strongest showing. Allison Williams believes in fairies, and so should you. Clap! Save Tinkerbell! I admit it, I did. I couldn’t resist. Such as it is with this production. Let yourself go along for the ride, and you’ll be rewarded.
You can even see this in the Twitter reaction to the broadcast. If last year was venomous, this year was merely spicy. Haters are gonna hate, sure, but the overall timbre of the Tweets was lighter, like the kind of joking one would expect to read during an airing of the Tony Awards, or the Oscars, or an episode of Scandal. I was less flabbergasted to switch on my feed, because this year, there was a sense that this time it was all in good fun.
So, between the broadcast and the side of humanity on display, I’m much happier this year than I was last year. NBC’s clearly getting the hang of this thing, and is getting more ambitious with each go round. The stunt cast curation was better this time around, we got more fabulous Broadway talent, and, for good measure, we even got more appreciable artistic value thanks to the design.
So, once again, I’m happy to close this review with, “YES. Please try again!” May I suggest Neil Patrick Harris as Harold Hill?
Peter Pan LIVE! will be repeated at 7 p.m. Saturday, December 6, on NBC.
The DVD of this performance (presumably without commercial interruption)
will be available to ship December 16th from Amazon.
PETER PAN LIVE!
Iain Armitage . YouTube I miss the audience but … people all over the world are watching. It’s like we have a secret relationship
Hank Steuver . Washington Post one letdown was Christopher Walken as the show’s villain pirate, Captain Hook. It was an act of stunt-casting that seemed perfectly appropriate when announced but, in practice, was about as strong as wet cardboard.
Alessandra Stanley . NY Times a loving, lavish tribute to a beloved musical that offered a new generation of children a chance to use their smartphones to keep Tinkerbell alive.
Brian Lowry . Variety Christopher Walken, an intriguing choice in theory, but whose laid-back take on Captain Hook and muted voice only exhibited the faintest spark when he had an opportunity to dance. Moreover, Walken’s makeup was positively pallid, at times bearing a closer resemblance to Count Dracula.