SPOILER ALERT! Review: Despite Hiccups, PETER PAN LIVE! Thrives as Broadway Stars Shine

By: Dec. 04, 2014
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Growing up, my brother, sister, and I wore out our VHS recording of one of Mary Martin's TV productions of PETER PAN. Mixed in between viewings of APOLLO 13 and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, we learned every word to every song, and while I don't remember dancing along with the Lost Boys, there is no doubt that we could have, if asked. I've never seen the musical on stage, so, for me, PETER PAN simply belongs on television; and producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan spared no fairy dust in creating a magical PETER PAN that reinforced why this holiday tradition should never grow up and fly away. Despite a handful of hiccups that befall many live productions, and storytelling that was occasionally less than crisp, simply put, PETER PAN LIVE! is a triumph for children young and old.

As everyone who has watched TV over the past three months knows, PETER PAN's cast was led by Allison Williams (HBO's GIRLS) and Christopher Walken (PULP FICTION, HAIRSPRAY). While both are exceptional performers in their own rights, it was the Broadway talents that made this production one of the most thoroughly enjoyable family events in recent memory.

As has been the case with nearly all Peters since J.M. Barrie's original production in 1904, the boy who won't grow up was played by Williams, a young woman. Despite the fact that Williams was not known as a singer before PETER PAN, she demonstrated a surprisingly strong voice, especially given the acrobatics that she often was executing as she sang. Unfortunately, her characterization didn't always reach the level of her vocals. In the quieter moments, Peter appeared stiff and unenergetic, but as he flew and danced, he became as wide-eyed and excitable as Peter Pan should be. Williams surely overcame some early nerves, and her performance became more confident and professional as she left the nursery for Neverland.

WIliams' finest moment was in the heart-breaking "When I Went Home," as Peter explains that he has no home to return too. While Williams might have played Peter a bit more dry and sarcastic than we are used to seeing, there is no denying her incredible charisma and talent. I, for one, hope that this isn't the last time that we see her in a musical, as she more than proved that she has the chops and presence to lead a major musical production.

As for Walken... well, what can I say about Christopher Walken? To borrow a phrase from Major League Baseball, PETER PAN LIVE! might have been the finest example of "Walken being Walken." The sheer presence that he brought to every scene was nearly enough to justify his inclusion in the cast, and his surprising dancing ability is legendary, but beyond that, there wasn't a whole lot to his Captain Hook. A great actor can so thoroughly become a character that you forget that there even is an actor in the role; and there's no doubt that Christopher Walken is a great actor. But despite the hook on his hand, and the Keith Richards' costume, I never once saw Captain Hook, I only saw Walken; especially in the pair of times that he went up on his lines and when he croaked out unending notes. Broadway is not immune to this type of stunt casting, and if that is what it takes to get specials like this on air, I guess I am willing to endure them, but as Meron and Zadan plan for the next installment, I hope that all of the stars are selected as much for their ability as their name-recognition.

Whatever shortcomings that Walken might have brought to Hook, they were easily overlooked as he was nearly always accompanied by a villainously delightful crew of pirates, headed by Christian Borle (who won a Tony for playing a young Hook in PETER AND THE STARCATCHER) as Smee. Borle, who nearly stole THE SOUND OF MUSIC last year, was again hilarious in his dual roles as Hook's literal left hand and Mr. Darling. I think it is about time that the non-theatre public forgives Borle for SMASH and gets him his own starring vehicle, either on stage or screen.

And though it was subtle, there was probably not a funnier moment in the show than when Smee and the men were all doing their best Walken Hook impressions. I... literally... laughed... out.... loud.

Another shining star to come out of the production was everyone's mother Wendy, played by Broadway's Taylor Louderman. She brought an emotional sincerity that wasn't seen in many other performances, and her voice was nearly as beautiful as she was.

Likewise, five-time Tony-nominee Kelli O'Hara was wonderful in the fleeting role of Mrs. Darling, as was newcomer Alanna Saunders as Tiger Lily. Whether it was the nostalgia of my childhood, or the joy of seeing a Broadway legend on screen, I have to admit that I got tears in my eyes when O'Hara entered the nursery; and then again when the Darling children finally took flight.

Like the pirates, Peter's Lost Boys and Tiger Lily's tribe brought all of the singing and dancing talent that theatre fans were hoping for from the musical. These ensembles brought a level of enjoyment and professionalism that reenergized the show whenever the fairy dust waned. And the Newsies Lost Boys provided some truly goosebump-inducing harmonies. Director/choreographer Rob Ashford created some astounding choreography that was as stunning for its humor as for its athleticism and artistry.

Meron, Zadan, and Ashford engineered a gorgeous world of bright colors, exciting performances, and magical escapism. The visual and technical quality of PETER PAN far exceeded last year's THE SOUND OF MUSIC. At every turn, we were exposed to another fully-realized Broadway level set, full of trap doors, slides, and whimsy. Though parts looked like an unexplored wing of Willy Wonka's factory, Derek McLane's sets and scenery were exquisite, and added much to the production.

As a theatre fan, I will forever be grateful to Carrie Underwood for lending her star-power to THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE! Her status as one of the country's most popular stars was invaluable to the show's success, which, of course, paved the way for PETER PAN LIVE!; not to mention NBC's announced A FEW GOOD MEN and rumored THE MUSIC MAN, and Fox's upcoming GREASE LIVE!

However, at this point, I think Meron and Zadan have built a strong enough tradition to not have to compromise the quality of the leads in order to attract viewers. Let me again say, there was certainly plenty to appreciate from Underwood, Williams, and Walken, but both productions were at their best when the Broadway alums in the supporting casts and ensembles were front and center. There simply is no substitute for the experience of performing live, with no cuts, no second takes, and no taped tracks.

While the SOUND OF MUSIC had its social media detractors, it joyfully brought the excitement of live theatre to tens of millions of people. However, so much of what we think of as Broadway nowadays is the spectacle of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or the stagecraft of WICKED; so I was glad that this year, the producers delivered a fully-realized Broadway extravaganza. NBC's financial investment in the project was evident from the nursery, to Neverland, to the dynamic computer-generated Tinkerbell. Though the invention of HD TVs made Williams' wires a bit more noticeable than Martin's, the rest of the show's technical aspects went off without a hitch.

Those that remember the original teleplays likely realized that there were a few alterations and additions made to the music by Mark "Moose" Charlap and Jule Styne. Tony-nominee Amanda Green helped update the lyrics written by her father Adolph Green, Carolyn Leigh, and Betty Comden; and she and Music Director David Chase interpolated trunk songs from the original writers to make a more well-rounded story. Though I was a little surprised by some of the changes, the addition of "Only Pretend," sung beautifully by Louderman, and the rewrites for "True Blood Brothers" were especially effective.

Based on the reaction to SMASH and THE SOUND OF MUSIC LIVE! I am a little wary of checking out the response on Twitter, but I truly hope that musical theatre fans appreciate the incredible opportunity that NBC has afforded our community. They have created an truly unique platform for millions of people to be exposed to magic of musical theatre, and given scores of actors, singers, dancers, creatives, and technicians the experience and exposure of a lifetime. So MT lovers, when voicing your reactions to PETER PAN LIVE! on social media, remember, "Think lovely thoughts."

What did you think of America's flight to Neverland? Were you swept away by Tinkerbell's magic? Let me know what you think in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt.

Photo Credit:
1) John Allyn, Allison Williams, Jake Lucas, and Taylor Louderman: Virginia Sherwood | NBC
2) Allison Williams: Virginia Sherwood | NBC
3) Austin Lesch, Christian Borle, and Chris Sullivan: Virginia Sherwood | NBC
4) Allison Williams and the Lost Boys: Virginia Sherwood | NBC


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