ONE PERSON’S BELATED OPINION OF NBC’s SECOND LIVE BROADCAST OF A BELOVED MUSICAL (after 2013’s “The Sound of Music” of course), WHICH INCLUDES COMPARING IT TO VARIOUS “PETER PAN” PRODUCTIONS OF THE PAST.
I’m about to reveal what has been a – well, I won’t exactly call it a guilty pleasure, but it has been a bit of a peculiar one for the vast bulk of my life…
I’ve been a fan of the book/movie/musical “Peter Pan” since NBC showed an encore of the 1960 version of the Broadway smash, with Mary Martin playing the boy who won’t grow up, when I was around six years old.
Since that time, I’ve seen quite a few versions of Sir James M. Barrie’s story, including the one where – shockingly – Peter actually does grow up: the 1991 movie Hook featuring Dustin Hoffman as that sinister pirate and the late Robin Williams (rest in peace) as the adult Peter Pan who has to return to Neverland to rescue his son and daughter.
I’ve tended to look at the Peter Pan productions over the years with a critical eye, as it’s in my nature to do so; some of the productions I’ve liked more than others.
While the 1953 Walt Disney cartoon version “Peter Pan” featured an actual boy (Bobby Driscoll) in the lead role, the two huge objections I have about that animated film are the liberties and omissions that Disney is notorious for, and especially the grotesquely stereotypical way the Native Americans were portrayed. It was akin to Birth of a Nation, the 1915 epic silent which showed African Americans as less then human, in that context.
As for the Mary Martin version, which debuted on Broadway in 1954 and produced for television several times over the next few years…
I fully understand how Martin is seen by virtually everyone, particularly in the baby boom generation, as the quintessential Peter Pan, but I’m sorry – I just didn’t feel it.
Martin was a forty-someting year old woman playing a ten-year old boy, and I felt that she failed to exude the spirit of a rambunctious, adventurous elementary school-aged male as even at age six, her mannerisms seemed more like an extremely effeminate ten-year old girl; right down to the micro-minidress she wore.
And much like the Disney Version, don’t even get me started on how the Native Americans were portrayed as the pronounced stereotypes that were exuded greatly upset me, so much so that I loudly wondered why various Indian tribes like the Navajo, the Sioux, and the Iroquois did not sue those producers for making them look so bad and making the issue of Native American sports nicknames seem like a big, fat not-a-big-deal compared to this.
Cathy Rigby, who first donned the green tights in 1990 and set the record for the most times playing that flying boy, was in my view a much better Peter as although she, like Martin, was in her forties and fifties playing a young boy, she was far more effective in conveying that masculinity.
I liked Hook a lot due to the fact that it finally answered the question I’m sure many people were asking, at least to themselves: “What if Peter Pan grew up?” It certainly answered that question for a naturally curious guy like me.
And no one was a better choice than Robin Williams to tackle that role.
The 2003 live action movie version of Peter Pan is my choice of the best version of that tale ever as in my view, no one was a better Captain Hook than Jason Issacs, no one was a better Wendy than Rachel Hurd-Wood, and nobody portrayed Peter better than Jeremy Sumpter – and not just because he was actually a boy, either.
In fact, I wish this line could have somehow been added to that film:
“Unlike some other Peter Pans, I am an actual boy.”
The first-love angle in that film was particularly impressive as the kiss that Wendy gave Peter on the pirate ship was the best first kiss in movie history, and certainly the best first kiss on any screen since Kevin Arnold kissed Winnie Cooper on that rock in the first episode of TV’s “The Wonder Years”.
That brings us to the recent NBC production that was hyped to the ceiling and starred veteran actor Christopher Walken as Hook and Allison Williams, from HBO’s “Girls”, as the forever-a-kid.
I was anticipating this live televised play and fully intended to watch it with a critical eye, to see how Walken and especially Williams fared in those iconic roles compared to those legends who had gone before them.
I sat in my reclining chair to watch it, and after three hours and what I thought were way too many commercial breaks (although the Walmart ones featuring Melissa Joan Hart of “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” fame and her family were nice), here’s what I thought of the whole thing:
1. Walken was okay as Captain Hook as many of his lines were quite witty, but I felt he could have been bit more forceful as there were times when he seemed to desperately want to turn over his captaincy to his main assistant, Mr. Smee (played by Christian Borle, who also played Mr. Darling in a departure from tradition that dictated that Hook and Mr. Darling would be played by the same guy).
In other words, he seemed tired, like all he wanted to do was go into his quarters and take a nap.
2. The sets were excellent, and I liked the fact that there were new songs, including “When I Went Home” which detailed how Peter found the window to his bedroom locked when he tried to return to his home, receiving loudly and clearly the message that he was forgotten.
And I liked how they replaced that utterly offensive “Ugg-a-Wugg” with “True Blood Brothers”, and how a member of the Cherokee Nation, Alanna Saunders, played Tiger Lily.
3. The Lost Boys should have been called “Lost Young Men” as they were WAY too old, looking like they were growing up despite Neverland’s number one rule. The producers should have casted boys at least five years younger.
Peter Pan (Allison Williams) fighting his eternal arch-nemesis Captain Hook (Christopher Walken)
4. All right, I know you were waiting for this…
What I thought of Allison Williams’ portrayal of Peter:
I give her an A+ for effort and a B- for effectiveness and performance.
From the moment she first flew through the Darlings’ window, I could tell that this was a dream role for the daughter of the NBC Nightly News anchor and that she dearly wanted to give it everything she had, which I felt she did as she succeeded in giving off a sense of masculinity, unlike Martin.
And her voice, which not exactly at the level of Christina Aguilera or Ariana Grande, was good as I particularly liked her version of “Neverland”.
However, there were a few flaws, two in particular which led me to proclaim Cathy Rigby as the one who remains the best stage version of Peter Pan in my book…
The fact that she portrayed Peter as a mature 17-year old high school sports captain instead of what Peter was supposed to be, a ten year old boy with a form of ADHD, and that she was much too mellow in her portrayal as I felt that except for the “I Won’t Grow Up” and “True Blood Brothers” numbers, she desperately needed far more energy than what she gave.
That was especially the case in the final showdown scene between her and Walken as their sword fight looked as if it was done by two ninety-something year old ladies in a rest home.
Indeed, it was all I could do to not jump into the screen and give her caffeine pills and a huge bowl of Frosted Flakes to get her energy going.
Other than those issues, I enjoyed Allison’s interpretation as it was interestingly different from Martin’s, or Rigby’s, or anyone else who donned the green outfit. Her Peter seemed more of a leader than the previous Peters, more in control emotionally when the situation dictated.
The problem was that there were times where the emotions needed to come out, like when she finds out that Wendy (played by Taylor Louderman with Minnie Driver portraying the adult version) had grown up with a child of her own. And it wasn’t there.
The Bottom Line…
I felt that considering it was a one-shot production with no chances for do-overs, though it had a few flaws “Peter Pan Live!” was adequately done as in the grand tradition of “Siskel and Ebert”, I give it one thumb up and one thumb to the side.
Would I recommended it to youngsters, which J.M. Barrie geared “Peter Pan” for in the first place?
Sure, I think they would enjoy it.
Here’s a clip of what I felt was a highlight of the show: