I really wanted Peter Pan Live! to succeed. I love the idea of a live musical broadcast during the Holiday season. I was, apparently, one of the few that was pleasantly surprised by The Sound of Music Live last year, although it was an uneven performance. As Allison Williams noted in an interview, we love to be haters, too cool for school. However, I approached this musical with some trepidation partly due to its being one of my least favorite musicals, no matter who does it. My other worry was Christopher Walken. Now I love Mr. Walken as an actor and I’ve seen him in a song-and-dance role before; not bad and mostly funny (because of his other roles). However this was years ago (he’s 71 now), brief (not for a whole show) and, on their own merits as a singing/dancing performer, they weren’t great. Both of my concerns were born out through the evening.
Prior to diving into all of that, I want to recognize that Allison Williams plays a good Pan. Her performance was strong, she sang well and her fitness allowed her to play a pretty buff Pan. I was a little surprised at the choice to go with an English accent (despite the lineage of the book and its setting). It’s rare that Americans put on a decent English accent. Hers worked relatively well. I also want to say that from a production standpoint, it was spot on. I especially liked the sets. They were amazing, although I would have done something different with the rose trees (and I’m not talking Rhododendron). I loved the touch of Neverland written on the map. I do wish Tiger Lilly (Alanna Saunders) wore more clothes and either clothe the guys or let their tops be bare. Their body suit was a bit weird. The look, sound, and technical effects all worked flawlessly. The only hiccup I saw was while Wendy was tucking in the children during her lullaby “Distant Melody”, John and Michael were to share a berth; Michael could never fully get on the bunk.
There were two other technical issues outside of the musical itself: the attempt at a Shazam sing-a-long and using tweets to save Tinker Bell. So I can see that the idea of singing along could be fun for a family with younger kids, a seriously drunk party, or, if like me, you’re an IT guy interested in new uses of technology. Use Shazam to tag it, hit Music and, with the magic of modern technology, voilà, you have a sing-a-long. Alas, the song choices showed up about 5 minutes after the actual song started. All night long. They never were in synch. I suspect that someone had a chat with whomever was in charge of QA this morning. On the Twitter side of things, could you please just let the kids clap at home and have the actors pretend to hear it. Tweeting #SaveTinkerBell is a bit awkward for that moment for children, don’t you think. By the way, these children are up a 10 p.m. (on the East coast) on a school night if they’re seeing this. That’s a bit late.
For me, there are no great catchy, moving or hugely fun songs in the musical itself. So no talent or production can make up for a musical with simply decent to mediocre songs, “I’m Flying” and “I Won’t Grow Up” are two of the better songs. “Hook’s Tango” can be clever but not with Mr. Walken performing it. That leads us to the cast. While Taylor Louderman performs Wendy admirably, she’s simply too old for the role. It doesn’t fit the story. Speaking of too old, Mr. Walken just didn’t have the ability to perform his role, although he did bring an element of comedy to the show, both intended and unintended. Physically, putting on the black wig just brought out in bright relief that his face didn’t match the hair; combining that with his drawn on pointy eyebrows and his mole/beauty mark was, well, hideous. He mostly spoke as, well, only Christopher Walken can. He did try to through in some “me hearty” and tried to add a bit of some accent to it. It just didn’t work, whatever it was. The fight scene with Pan was just sad. I love Christopher Walken and respect his acting ability and comedic timing, so I hate to see him attempting this role now. Twenty years ago maybe, but not now.
The highlight of the evening was Minnie Driver, as the grown up Wending, meeting with Peter Pan as he comes to bring her back to Neverland but returns with Jane. Despite the uneven performances of the night, it was still moving and filled with pathos.
Here’s the strange part – this is a relatively expensive, once-a-year production for NBC. They invest in a great set, so you would think they would invest in the cast. Alison Williams was great but Mr. Walken verged on the horrific and Ms. Louderman was just a wrong fit for Wendy despite her good performance. The two productions. Sound of Music Live and Peter Pan Live, have been uneven partly due to an uneven cast. They don’t need to get expensive headliners but at least folks who have actively been in Broadway and make sure they’re a fit for the role (age, disposition and physicality). Last year, people complained that while Ms. Underwood could sing, she could not act; I personally think her acting was OK. Captain Von Trapp (Stephen Moyer), however, was just plain wooden. That one was a bit harder to spot because Mr. Moyer has the credentials. One other thing that would be great is, somehow, to have a live audience. I know that’s technically really hard to do, but live musical actors love the feedback.
So NBC, thanks for the effort. Please don’t give up. As the saying goes, the third time’s the charm. A great cast, a long-running musical source and continued great production and you’re there. Maybe start at 7:30/6:30 would help to keep it a family night. Kudos for Ms. Williams, Ms. Louderman (despite the age disparity) and Ms. Driver for a great effort