Peter Pan is an odd, perplexing musical, and one that’s perhaps best left as a relic of an age when men could harrumph about being the masters of their house before abusing their poor family pets, and boys could repeatedly sing, “Oh, what pleasure she’ll bring to us,” about a girl in a nightgown without anything seeming untoward. (That’s not to mention the fetishization and love-bombing of Wendy as a mother figure, or the stereotyping of Native Americans, or the ritual dismembering and eventual grisly murder of a frankly witty and charming elderly man.)
All this forces the question of who the intended audience was for NBC’s production of Peter Pan Live, a three-hour performance taped on a soundstage somewhere, without an audience, and with all of the limitations of live theater and none of the advantages. The show was aired from 8 till 11 p.m. on a school night, too late for the younger viewers who might actually find it magical, and too early for drunk people (ditto). The casting of Girls star Allison Williams as Peter and Christopher “More Cowbell” Walken as Captain Hook hinted that the real demographic was people with Twitter accounts, taking advantage of the recent Sharknado/VMAs/presidential debate phenomenon that makes experiencing things via social media infinitely more enjoyable than just watching them on their own.
It’s hard not to see this as cynicism on NBC’s part, thanks to the success of last year’s Sound of Music Live, and the countless Carrie Underwood critiques it sparked in 140 characters or less. (NBC has announced it’s staging The Music Man next year, while Fox has plans for its own live production of Grease.) There’s no other way to explain such a peculiar production, one in which every moment seemed designed for maximum giffage. Firstly there was Williams, boyishly good-looking with a Pan pixie cut, and with a plummier English accent than Boris Johnson but with little of the London Mayor’s charisma. Williams is a strong actress and a good singer, but she seemed to think she was starring in an offbeat cable drama than a blockbuster musical production, attempting to bring naturalism to Peter’s crowing charm, and looking occasionally like she was being strung up by the wires that propelled her into the air (onstage, you can just about ignore the obvious cables that enable actors to fly, but in a close-up TV production, everything ends up looking like a live-action production of Thunderbirds).
Christopher Walken played Christopher Walken in a pirate wig, as Christopher Walken tends to do, but his dancing was simply magnificent, particularly when the pirates broke into a tap routine in “Pirate Song.” He is perhaps not a natural singer, as evidenced by the way he simply ignored the high notes, but the scenes in which he and his crew of Bret Michaels lookalikes plotted Peter’s demise proved what productions like this can be: daffy, over-the-top choreography and simple charm. The same could not, unfortunately, be said for the Lost Boys, who looked to have a median age of 40 but at least spoke with more authentic accents than the pirates, who sounded like supporting cast members from a regional Harold Pinter play.
To get around the show’s racially problematic history, NBC hired a Native American consultant, who rewrote the song “Ugg-a-Wugg” as “True Blood Brothers,” cast Alanna Saunders—an actress of Cherokee descent—as Tiger Lily, and seemed to reinvent the Neverland natives as Polynesian islanders. The princess was escorted by a crew of men sporting flesh-colored boxer-shorts and grass skirts who manhandled the Lost Boys in a variety of curious ways (even appearing to bench press them at one point). The Neverland set itself was zany, featuring a map of Neverland printed on the ground, a field of hallucinogen-inspired trees sprouting flowers, giant yellow mushrooms, and, alas, a bright blue crocodile.
That crocodile, which appeared to be played half by CGI robots and half by an actor in a lycra body suit, was the trough of the show’s oscillation between earnest musical theater and all-out insanity (slightly above it was the moment when NBC offered the hashtag #SaveTinkerbell so that people could tweet to tell everyone that they believe in fairies). The crest was Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling, whose “Tender Shepherd” lullaby set an early high bar that the rest of the production failed to match until Minnie Driver appeared right at the end as grown-up Wendy.
If you have two actresses of this caliber, why waste them to this extent? Because productions like this one aren’t actually intended to be good. Maybe next year NBC will consider casting Kate Baldwin or Laura Benanti as Marian Paroo, but it’s far more likely that Katy Perry, or even Snooki, will get the banner treatment. And it’s a shame, because occasionally people like to tweet about quality entertainment, too.