Writer: Irene Mecchi
Directors: Rob Ashford & Glenn Weiss
For several years now, American television network NBC has been adapting beloved musicals into televised theatrical productions. Originally designed to air in early June – The Shows Must Go On moves forward, allowing the Americans their chance to show the world their 2014 production of one of the UK’s timeless, definitive stories – Peter Pan.
Peter Pan – Live!’s structure is closer to a film set than a stage. There are no open walls for the audience, utilising closed sets and models for authenticity, rather than suggestion. The effects, particularly models and costumes, are impressive and match more substantial theatrical output. Breaking immersion though, the camera work is choppy, and focus (technical and figurative) drops frequently, beginning the descent of what had promise as an engaging adaption of Carolyn Leigh’s 1954 musical.
Christopher Walken as Captain James Hook. That should be the golden ticket, right? Attempting his finest Anthony Head impersonation, Walken is at his Walkenest but lacks the fire to sell the character. His speak-singing stagnates much of the solitary numbers, as Hook shifts from a blustering dandy of refinement into a jazz singer, slow and methodical, but without the passion or signature moves. It strips much of the original musical’s tight, atmospheric score with rich musical numbers. And what should be the breakaway number, Wonderful World Without Peter, lacks oomph from Walken, as Alison Williams circles the tiring, unenthusiastic cut-throat. Taunting him, leaping to-and-fro, a clash of children’s literature greatest becomes no more than a meandering farce of cheap camera angles, smoke-machines and a Hook who could do with a lie-down in a dark room with some Ibuprofen.
At the time, the casting of Williams as Pan raised eyebrows for some. Throughout the production, it’s evident that Williams is certainly an accomplished performer, with a dash more energy and vigour than many other cast members – though, in true American fashion, there’s nary an English accent which isn’t crossing into painfully one-note. Her attitude as Pan conveys a significantly less bratty, more self-assured Pan, aiding in the rivalry with an older Captain Hook. This isn’t to say Williams refrains from the jolly adolescence of Pan’s naivety, with her frequent ‘crow’ calls and ensemble number I Won’t Grow Up, featuring tight choreography from the Lost Boys.
A gaggle of the missing Boris brood – far from the fur-clad youngsters of imagination, these Lost Boys are instead an Etonian nightmare of school ties, Chads & Nigels. Playful, they can’t capture the essence of boyhood innocence. Most side characters suffer. None more so than Tinkerbell, reduced to a CGI blip, combined with practical lighting effects – emerging from the pages of J.M Barrie’s classic though are Mr & Mrs Darling, Kelli O’ Hara and Christian Borle.
Vocally, Kelli O’ Hara finds herself at home with a maternal beauty and clarity in her vocals. Meanwhile, Borle produces significant laughs with his physical characterisation of Mr Smee and portrays Mr Darling with such a stiff-upper-lip, it’s impressive he can breathe. Perhaps the most sweeping impact is from Minnie Driver’s brief cameo as adult Wendy, who, as expected, elevates the entire scene and has such intense chemistry with Williams, it’s a shame this wasn’t the entire show – insightful, touching and capturing the fairy dust of the century-old tale.
Is Peter Pan – Live! as bad as it could have been? Far from it, it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s fine, which in a story of fairies, swashbuckling and crocodiles is its vastest crime. What results are islands of whimsical brilliance in a sea of peculiarities, wasted potentials and obscure choices which confirms directors Rob Ashford & Glenn Weiss’ inability to find that second star to the right.
Reviewed on 20 June 2020