Peter Pan isn’t so much a story as a collection of moments. Peter teaches the Darlings to fly, the Lost Boys team up with Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell almost dies, Peter defeats Captain Hook, and the Darlings return home. The plot mechanics that hold those moments together are largely forgettable. Peter Pan—in any version—has never been greater than the sum of its parts. Yet even with a muddled narrative and some inherent cheesiness, those iconic moments prove strong enough to elevate Peter Pan Live! into something special.
In just about every way Peter Pan Live! is superior to last year’s uneven The Sound Of Music Live! This time around, NBC produced a show to be laughed with rather than at. The problems that do exist are mostly inherent to the source material. Instead of resting on their laurels, returning producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and director Rob Ashford clearly challenged themselves to push this new TV/theater hybrid medium to greater heights. They succeeded in producing a colorful, competent, occasionally moving piece of musical theater.
Gone are the awkward transitions and grating white noise that plagued last year’s broadcast. While The Sound Of Music Live! felt static in both its staging and filming, Peter Pan Live! never stops moving. Cameras swoop around the gargantuan confection of a set as Ashford’s innovative choreography adds life and structure to an occasionally meandering show. Best of all, Peter Pan Live! fully embraces the theatricality The Sound Of Music Live! largely shied away from. Victorian England is represented with tiny model houses and there’s no attempt to hide the wires lifting actors off the ground. Nana may be played by a real (and absolutely adorable) dog, but the crocodile is still a man slithering across the stage in a colorful costume. The Lost Boys are very clearly grown men and Peter Pan is very clearly a woman. Those conventions may be off-putting to musical theater newbies, but Peter Pan Live! spends no time apologizing for its theatrical roots.
As with last year’s production, the Broadway vets walk away with the show. Five-time Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara turns in a warm, heartbreaking performance as Mrs. Darling. Christian Borle has a blast hamming it up as both a non-threatening Mr. Darling and a surprisingly buff Smee. And Taylor Louderman brings nuance and depth to her scene-stealing Wendy.
Unfortunately NBC’s penchant for stunt casting is once again its biggest downfall. No one pulls a full Underwood, but both Allison Williams and Christopher Walken fail to rise to the level of the musical theater performers around them. Williams feels like the girl who got every lead role in high school but couldn’t quite compete with stronger performers in college. She’s not bad, but she lacks the right impulsive, impish energy for Peter Pan. Despite some impressive wirework and a powerhouse voice, she can’t find the conviction necessary to carry the show.
No doubt Walken will emerge as the most divisive element of the evening. His devil-may-care attitude and signature offbeat delivery style likely impressed those already in the Walken fan club, but in my eyes he was the weakest part of the show. Instead of committing either to playing himself or playing Captain Hook he tries to split the difference and ends up doing a lethargic Christopher Walken impression. Hook should steal the show, not bring it to a halt. Despite a few charming moments in his dance routines (including a newly added and entirely unnecessary intro number, “Vengeance”), Walken’s performance feels like it’s mocking the material, not elevating it.
The musical’s odd pacing was made even more apparent when stretched over a three hour runtime. But a revamped book and Ashford’s energetic staging added drive and purpose to the show’s weak middle act, which centers on people walking around a forest (in this case made of giant Seussian bouquets). Ashford’s efforts didn’t always succeed—Pan and Hook’s mid-show confrontation was a particular slog—but he brought new life to “I Won’t Grow Up” by setting the song in a makeshift schoolroom with Peter as the subversive teacher. By crafting specific movement styles for his three big ensembles (the Native Americans are grounded and masculine, the Pirates showy and flamboyant, and the Lost Boys athletic and graceful), Ashford at least finds a way to keep the slower parts of the story visually interesting. Unfortunately, the camera occasionally lost those larger stage pictures in favor of unnecessarily tight closeups.
The biggest secret of Peter Pan is that the story is a tragedy, not a comedy. And Peter Pan Live! proves surprisingly willing to delve into the show’s darker themes, especially in its final third. Wendy and Peter play at being mother and father for entirely different reasons; Peter is trying on a persona he’s fleeing from and Wendy is practicing one she’s running toward. The newly added song “Only Pretend” lets Wendy voice her fears about Peter’s intentions. And if their relationship feels somewhat twisted, well, that’s because it is.
Peter Pan is far more antihero than hero. The newly reinstated song “When I Went Home” (well performed by Williams) gives some context to how Peter became a selfish, arrogant boy who hides his fears behind charming bravado (he returned to his parents’ house to find the window shut and a new child in his bed). But in rejecting the responsibilities of adult masculinity, Peter also rejects any chance at long lasting relationships. The musical’s final scene fully embraces that bittersweet reality as an adult Wendy (a stunning cameo from Minnie Driver) allows Peter to take her daughter to Neverland, knowing full well the heartbreak that is in store for both of them. In a musical made up of vignettes, this one proved far and away the strongest.
For those who went into Peter Pan Live! looking to hate it, there were plenty of missteps to snark about. But for those of us—like myself—who hold musical theater near and dear, there was also a lot to love. A (mostly) talented cast performed inventively staged musical numbers on network TV to an audience of millions. From cringe-worthy flubs to genuine pathos, Peter Pan Live! had just about everything I could ask for from a live musical event. And as Peter Pan has long proved, sometimes a few solid moments are enough to make a story soar.
- A lot has been made in the press about NBC’s attempts to update the show’s offensive take on Native Americans. This production cast Alana Saunders, an actress of Cherokee decent, as its Tiger Lily and enlisted a “Native American consultant” to help make changes to the show’s lyric and script. While Peter Pan Live! was definitely less racist than its 1950s counterpart, it’s also hard to imagine a version that doesn’t feel like it’s trivializing Native American culture.
- It makes no sense that a group of boys raised in Neverland would have access to real-world clothes, but the deconstructed uniforms felt perfect for the Lost Boys.
- The CGI Tinkerbell was not as terrible as I thought it would be, but I’m also not sure it was any better than just shining a light around the set.
- I was onboard with almost every staging choice in this show, but I dearly missed the Lost Boys building a little house around Wendy.
- Here’s a really great account of the origin of the Peter Pan musical.
- So now can we fantasy cast next year’s The Music Man? With two of these things under his belt, Christian Borle seems like a shoe-in for Harold Hill. I’ll cast my vote for Laura Osnes as Marian.