New York — This “Peter Pan” needed a lot more fairy dust.
NBC’s live telling of J.M. Barrie’s classic tale Thursday was an oddly ponderous, disconnected, disjointed and jerky mess. If it had been a Broadway show, it would have gotten the hook (pun intended).
It wasn’t the small things that broke the spell — ungraceful wire work, clunky transitions, a Tinkerbell that was as annoying as a mosquito and sounded like a wind chime, a tea cup that fell from Peter’s head and some technical glitches.
“Peter Pan Live!” simply never flew.
It suffered a draggy start, cursed by a “Downton Abbey” drawing room dialogue and a call for everyone to go to bed. It grew better in the colorful Neverland but veered into parody with a Captain Hook by Christopher Walken that seemed like a failed “Saturday Night Live” sketch about Johnny Depp. The whole thing lost steam by the second hour. Was anyone still trying to save Tinkerbell with 45 minutes to go?
The show came almost a year after NBC’s three-hour live telecast of “The Sound of Music” starring Carrie Underwood revived the idea of a broadcast network mounting a full-scale musical for live TV. That attracted nearly 19 million viewers and made live theater cool again — on TV.
Like that previous show, “Peter Pan Live!” wisely leaned on Broadway performers, including five-time Tony Award-nominee Kelli O’Hara, who was sadly underused. Melissa Joan Hart’s endless shilling for Wal-Mart during the commercial breaks made more of an impact.
HBO “Girls” star Allison Williams was admirable in a role made famous by Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby. Her voice wasn’t strong but it was true and she was game for plenty of physical effort. She radiated a weird male energy, but the telecast revealed a lot of weird stuff in the script. This wasn’t the Disney version of “Peter Pan” and its odd, old British roots were showing.
The show also starred Jake Lucas (who was in “Newsies”) as John Darling, a very good Taylor Louderman (”Bring It On: The Musical”) as Wendy, and a beefy-armed Christian Borle, a Tony winner and veteran of last year’s “The Sound of Music Live!” (In a twist, Borle won his Tony playing Captain Hook in the Peter Pan play “Peter and the Starcatcher.”) Borle was the best thing in the three-hour event, hands down (punning again, Hook).
To be sure, the new show lifted the bar technically, making “The Sound of Music Live!” seem like summer stock in comparison.
This time, there was much more dancing, the addition of complicated flying routines, some mermaids, sword fights, digital overlays like Tinkerbell and shadows, and a live dog. Director and choreographer Rob Ashford had his work cut out for him.
But the sweeping cameras across scenic designer Derek McLane’s fine ship and flower-treed forests often captured the actors’ backs or cut away awkwardly. The addition of new visual toys made the show look overstuffed and yet not at all nourishing. Producers seem to have taken to heart Peter’s boast: “Oh, the cleverness of me!”
Some numbers were lovely — the “Distant Memory” duet between O’Hara and Louderman, the defiant “I Won’t Grow Up” and the pirate dance break “Hook’s Tango” — but so many others dragged and seemed like just filler. Did we actually need that many Lost Boys scenes and pirate jigs? And why were there so many on-camera moments that seemed a surprise to the actors in them?
One big change this year was the flying. It was supposed to be like Cirque du Soleil, but it came out more “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” Peter’s flying was jerky at the beginning and not well synched with the cameras, and the group flying scenes were shaky at best. It felt like personal injury attorneys should have been waiting by the phone.
This time, there also was a little more Hollywood, with Walken being Walken — oddly a veteran of acting with a missing appendage since he starred in “A Behanding in Spokane” on Broadway — and an unseen-until-the-end but effective Minnie Driver as the narrator.
It was a more culturally sensitive “Peter Pan,” with Alanna Saunders, a woman of Cherokee descent, portraying the Native American princess character Tiger Lily, and the offensive song “Ugg-a-Wugg” transformed into “True Blood Brothers.”
If that was more authentic, the same could not be said about many of the Lost Boys, who seemed old enough to have long ago lost their wisdom teeth. Never grow up, indeed. Some were so old that two adults were needed to carry them off.
Barrie’s children’s book is enjoying a purple patch of late. Broadway, which recently had “Peter and the Starcatcher,” will soon have “Finding Neverland.” Plus Hugh Jackman will star next year in the film “Pan.”
The character of Peter Pan will clearly survive this live event, but it remains to be seen if NBC’s lackluster “Peter Pan” killed off the network’s brave experiment in live theater.
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