Theater on the Tube: A Review of Peter Pan Live!

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Photo: NBC/2014 NBCUniversal Media, LLC.

There’s a problem with your production of Peter Pan if the excitement level drops nearly to nil upon Pan’s arrival. But that was the case with last night’s broadcast of the inaptly named Peter Pan Live! — NBC’s second experiment in revivifying the once-mighty genre of the live-television musical. The first, aired last December, was The Sound of Music Live!, starring country star Carrie Underwood; it was considered a huge success because it reached a first-night audience of nearly 19 million and did not destroy the underlying property. But even if the second attempt does as well, which hardly seems likely given its lack of a name draw, the product itself suggests it’s time to pause and reexamine the viability of the premise. The Sound of Music Live! was weird and abrupt but had some beautiful moments; Peter Pan Live! was just turgid and awful.

In both, the leads were woefully miscast. Underwood had no feel for the Rodgers and Hammerstein style and could barely act her way out of an encounter with a tree. At times it seemed as if Audra McDonald, superb as the Mother Abbess, might actually eat her. But at least Underwood had a kind of galumphing charm. Allison Williams brought to Peter Pan Live! all the relevant skills she’d acquired being a star of the edgy alt-comedy Girls and the daughter of newscaster Brian Williams. (That is, she was joyless and gave a good imitation of reading from a TelePrompTer.) Game and gamine, she looked good in green, but she sang more dutifully than adequately and basically spent three hours furrowing her brow as if trying to get through calculus homework. It is unfair, of course, to compare her to a queen of the musical stage like Mary Martin, who originated the role and played it several times on live TV starting in 1955; Martin had a career’s worth of ingratiating skills under her belt and a naturally jaunty stage disposition. At 42, she seemed decades younger playing Pan than Williams did last night at 26. Somehow, Martin seemed to think that the point of the exercise was to have fun.

But if it’s unfair for us to compare Williams to Martin, it was unfair of the production to put her in a comparable position. She and the show were both obviously underrehearsed. Though there were no outright disasters — no midair collisions or wretchedly flubbed lines — the movement from scene to scene and from plot point to plot point was clunky at best, as if only the highlights were worked on sufficiently and the rest was left to fend for itself. Indeed, like Williams attempting Pan, the production seemed to approach the material not as an opportunity for light entertainment but as a series of problems to attack. Many were solved reasonably enough. The casual racism of the original’s treatment of Tiger Lily and her Native American crew was averted, in part by providing new lyrics for the song once known as “Ugg-a-Wugg” and now called “True Blood Brothers.” The Controversy of the Strings was settled by letting the flying rigs be visible, a choice purists applaud, though the result was not especially thrilling. (The flight often seemed digitally manipulated even though it wasn’t.) The 21st century was briefly acknowledged in Pan’s plea on behalf of his moribund fairy friend; the audience was instructed not only to clap but to tweet out a message with the hashtag #SaveTinkerBell.

Alas, that is all that passed for wit. Certainly Christopher Walken, a narcotized Captain Hook, did not supply much, though a brief tap-dance (to a Jule Styne trunk song repurposed for the occasion) offered glimmers of what might have been. (The choreography, mostly stompy and incoherent on camera, was by Rob Ashford.) The sets were garish, apparently decorated to coordinate with products available at Walmart, a lead sponsor. The ensemble performances seemed to be deliberately pitched at community-theater levels.

That a few moments of dignity survived the onslaught of cheese was a miracle greater than the success of #SaveTinkerBell. Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling brought her customary professionalism (and gorgeous voice) to bear on that small but crucial role. (She provided the only moments of genuine emotion in the whole three hours.) Generally, the music, if not always the singing, sounded great, however much it was piped from somewhere behind the scenes. And the occasional tiny detail (a pirate crewman giving his captain a hookicure) suggested a production we could have seen. But how? Back in 1955, Martin and Cyril Ritchard (as Hook) and most of the rest of the cast were re-creating for television a show they had already mastered on Broadway; indeed, Martin and Ritchard won Tonys for their stage performances. And this was at a time when Broadway stars loomed large enough in the culture to draw an enormous television audience. Today you could put Patti LuPone in green tights — or Martin herself, in zombie form, brought back from the grave — and you’d come in second place to CSI: Poughkeepsie. What the producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are heroically trying to do with these from-the-ground-up live broadcasts is therefore probably impossible. And boy, does it show.