I really thought I was prepared for all of Peter Pan Live!’s possible outcomes: It could have ended up a complete disaster (as many in the Twitterverse had hoped it would), or (more likely) a largely mediocre production on par with last year’s The Sound of Music Live!, or turned out to be a tour de force for Christopher Walken’s Captain Hook, as he steamrolled over everything in his path, especially poor Allison Williams as Peter Pan.
But I never saw this coming: a Peter Pan Live! that was quite good — much better than its promos indicated, and certainly a marked improvement on all fronts from Sound of Music Live! — save for one confounding performance: Walken’s.
I knew Walken would be the night’s wild card, but usually he’s the one who saves shows, not sabotages them. Not this time. The actor seemed to have skipped most of his rehearsals, opting instead to simply wing his way through the performance. Save for a few vintage Walken moments — tap dancing during “Vengeance,” snarling “Hoist up the children!” late in the production and finally showing some verve during “Captain Hook’s Waltz” — he was in a completely different show than his costars. At times he seemed lost in his own world, mouthing his lines and marking his steps, as if not realizing this was the actual performance, and not just a run-though. During his climatic swordfight with Peter, he could barely be bothered to lift his saber.
What a waste of Walken. Where was the performance we all expected from the man who spectacularly danced — and flew, Peter Pan-like — his way through “Weapon of Choice”?
Instead, in the night’s biggest surprise, Williams was the one who took charge and carried Peter Pan on her elevated shoulders. She was an immediate upgrade from last year’s non-actress lead, Carrie Underwood, and deftly handled the technically grueling role — at times, she was singing, flying and flipping head over heels, all at once. And unlike her Girls counterpart Marnie, she sang with gusto. (Sadly, her bizarre fishnet and spandex costume was never explained.)
The cast’s other standouts included Christian Borle, as Hook’s sidekick Smee, who helped camouflage Walken’s fogginess while pulling double duty as the Darling clan’s father, George. If only he had played Hook instead! And Kelli O’Hara was her usual powerhouse self as Mrs. Darling (sorry, no first name for you!).
Aside from Williams, the real star of the evening was the production’s ambitious, superior technical design. The set was a marvel, and showcased lovingly with confident camera movement that was a substantial improvement over the previous year’s pedestrian work. (As an added bonus, the sound issues that plagued The Sound of Music were also eradicated.) Cameras swooped and soared like Peter himself, and even got right in the center of some numbers to interact with the cast. Equally impressive were the live CGI effects, notably Tinkerbell. And the flying scenes were executed without a hitch.
Yet there are still more improvements to be made before next year’s live special. The awkward, abrupt cuts to commercial (and particularly in the last hour, there were a lot of them) made AMC’s Mad Men transitions look downright professional.
The cast (Walken aside) and crew’s outstanding work exposed the production’s biggest flaw: its problematic book. While producers rewrote and excised Peter Pan’s most cringeworthy sections (involving the Indians on the island, who were reconceived into a “tribe” that appeared to be refugees from Duran Duran’s “Rio” video), they didn’t do enough cutting and trimming.
The show dragged at three hours, easily one hour too long. Much of Peter Pan’s story is just plain weird: a stranger abducts three children and forces one of them to mother him and his friends, Wendy keeps coming on to Peter (she can’t take the hint that he’s just not into her), Hook spanks Peter, and the least menacing pirates in history are too busy incessantly dancing with one other to accomplish anything even remotely dastardly. Then in the end, Peter ditches Wendy for a younger model. He is all grown up, after all!
Still, the show somehow pulled it off. I believed a boy could fly, I believed in fairies, I believed that Allison Williams did better than anyone would have expected and I believed that NBC learned its lessons from last year’s production. Congratulations, NBC, you have plenty to crow about.