About 10 minutes after the ratings for “The Sound of Music Live!” rumbled in, I (and no doubt a lot of others) immediately thought “Peter Pan.” Not because that musical is the equal of the Von Trapps’ tale, but because it combined a family-friendly story with the sort of daredevil flying stunts that reliably lure rubes to watch those Nik Wallenda specials – live, naturally, thanks to the spectacle and risk. By that measure, NBC likely won the battle during the strategy sessions, despite a woefully lifeless production that, the fancy wiring notwithstanding, never quite got off the ground.
The casting in these endeavors always commands a little too much attention, and while the choices in this case were hardly fatal given the abundance of shortcomings, they certainly didn’t help.
That began with Allison Williams, whose singing voice was perfectly fine, but seemed far less boyish – and buoyant – than other famous occupants of the Peter Pan role on stage; and pretty much ended with 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.
Lacking as many well-known and show-stopping songs as “Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan” has always fed upon the energy provided by a live theatrical audience, playing as it does to the sense of wonderment about flight, the colorful costumes and choreography, with Lost Boys, pirates and Native Americans bounding around.
As a consequence, when the producers spoke of investing this production with a more cinematic feel, that frankly misses the point. The real thrill in “Peter Pan” is in the live element. (Of course, for those of us on the West Coast, the title might as well have been “Peter Pan … Delayed!,” but why split hairs?)
The expansive, kaleidoscopic sets and swiveling camerawork – including an aerial view – didn’t really serve to enhance any of that. At times, Neverland appeared less a magical place than a cut-rate throwback to the days of Sid and Marty Krofft.
Stretched to three hours to “eventize” and amortize the proceedings, “Peter Pan” also had the misfortune to peak early – about 30 minutes in, when Peter whisks Wendy (Taylor Louderman) and her brothers off to Neverland – and fly on autopilot thereafter, only catching an updraft during that poignant moment at the end when Peter returns for the adult Wendy (Minnie Driver), who has committed the unforgivable sin of growing up.
As a footnote, the presentation not surprisingly included plenty of promotion for NBC, including one for Williams’ dad, Brian, who, if memory serves, also works at the network.
It’s been 60 years since Mary Martin soared in a live NBC production of J.M. Barrie’s story, bringing a nice symmetry to this holiday telecast. But that was nearly a lifetime ago – and certainly before the age of social media, creating an army of buccaneers eager to pick such a project apart in real time.
Yet even for those who are less cynical – or at least, more willing to believe in fairies – “Peter Pan Live!” didn’t provide much reason to applaud.