TV News & Reviews

NBC’s ‘Peter Pan Live’ never quite flies

Pictured: (l-r) Jake Lucas as John Darling, John Allyn as Michael Darling, and Taylor Louderman as Wendy Darling.
Pictured: (l-r) Jake Lucas as John Darling, John Allyn as Michael Darling, and Taylor Louderman as Wendy Darling. NBC

Without question, the prospect of Christopher Walken playing Capt. Hook in “Peter Pan” sounded almost too good to be true.

Turned out it was.

Walken certainly had his moments Thursday night in “Peter Pan Live!” This was NBC’s reworked version of the 1954 Broadway musical with Allison Williams in the title role. When, in “Capt. Hook’s Waltz,” Walken sang “who’s the creepiest creep in the world?” he successfully tapped into his legacy of film performances as disturbed loners and malevolent criminals.

But the arch humor of his take on Hook seemed curiously out of sync with this flamboyant musical whose considerable charm stems from its 19th-century roots and J.M. Barrie’s novel. More often than not he seemed disengaged and low-energy as his manic pirate crew danced around him like a mini-typhoon.

Once he exhibited a modest bit of tap-dancing and occasionally put some muscle behind his argh-like pirate’s oaths. But Hook is one of the most entertaining characters in musical theater. He should be a feast for any actor. Walken was just nibbling around the edges.

The calling card — or if you prefer, gimmick — of this production was that it was performed live, just like NBC’s much-maligned broadcast of “The Sound of Music” a year ago. I’m all for live performance on TV and I certainly wouldn’t mind a revival of live primetime drama that saw its heyday in the ‘50s.

But something about this production seemed entirely too calculated. The story, when executed well, should generate honest poignancy. After all, it’s about a boy who can’t — or won’t — grow up, stuck for eternity in prepubescence. It’s a bittersweet tale, but this thing had a commercial theme-park vibe with its garishly colored sets and unapologetic fakeness.

The fact that is was loaded up with commercials for Walmart, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and other brands, as well as soon-to-be released movies and NBC shows, simply emphasized the bald commercialism of the enterprise.

Williams, who stars on HBO’s “Girls,” is a tall Peter Pan, at least in comparison to the rest of the cast. She’s a very good singer but Peter’s anarchic, frozen-in-time defiance eluded her. About midway through, the character has a telling line -- “death may be the greatest adventure of all” -- but Thursday night it had no impact, no resonance. Indeed, most of the story’s darkness was minimized.

Director/choreographer Rob Ashford is very good at composing shots and created interesting visual dynamics with fluid camera movements. He gave Williams as Peter an impressive entrance, flying out of the night sky through the window of the Darling children‘s bedroom.

The wires that made the “flying” possible were clearly visible, but I guess its tough to remove things digitally in live television.

“The Sound of Music” was a feeding frenzy for hate-watchers, and for this show the snarky Twittersphere was alive with ridicule and instantaneous criticism — “Christopher Walken the plank, “weirdest episode of ‘Girls’ ever,” “I do appreciate that they changed the negative Native American stereotypes (to) negative luau dinner-dance stereotypes,” “Guys, not every thought deserves a full song. OK? Seriously, we all have jobs.”

But while “Peter Pan” more than doubled the Twitter audience of last year’s “The Sound of Music,” the Associated Press reports it attracted less than half the viewers — 9.1 million to “Sound of Music’s” 18.6 million.

As noted, this version had no “Indians,” but in their place were “islanders,” and the offensive song from the original, “Ugg-a-Wugg” was replaced with a new tune, “True Blood Brothers,” an optimistic number in which the Lost Boys and Tiger Lily’s islanders form an alliance.

This is a show you had to root for — I did, anyway — because the material deserves a thoughtful, entertaining reading. However, with a Capt. Hook who spent most of his time seated and an opaque Peter, my expectations gradually evaporated. The show seemed like a slowly deflating balloon.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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