Like many people, I grew up watching the old televised version of Peter Pan with Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard from 1960. I have fond memories of being parked in front of the TV with our old VHS copy playing in the VCR. I’d sing along and find myself humming the songs from time to time. When NBC announced that they had chosen Peter Pan for their next live musical performance, I figured I’d at least give it a chance. How bad could it be? Well, let’s find out.
“I’ve got to-” No
I want to preface this by saying that, try as they might, NBC and its team can never take away my happy childhood memories. To be fair, it didn’t actually feel like they were trying. For a show that’s all about the joy, playfulness, and exuberance of youth, Peter Pan Live! felt strangely drained of energy. It was almost like Peter Pan’s eternal youth was fueled by some sort of soul-sucking ritual. Of course, for that to be true, the titular hero would also have to have some energy.
Allison Williams, daughter of newscaster Brian Williams and one of the stars of “Girls,” wasn’t terrible as Peter Pan. She has a good voice and can dance. That’s two things she’s got going for her. Unfortunately, like the rest of the production, she was hampered by a remarkable lack of vim and vigor. Instead of soaring through the air, it was like she was pushing her way through molasses. Peter Pan is a boy who makes everything seem so effortless. To make playing him seem like it takes a great deal of effort is an achievement.
In the story, Peter Pan is inexplicably adored by every female he comes across. Some versions actually make that adoration make sense. This one? There is no way that Wendy can be so instantly in love with the lackluster Peter. They’d only known each other for a couple of minutes and she’s inexplicably throwing herself at him with an enthusiasm that would make even the most desperate individual blush. There’s interest and then there’s interest. Not only is Wendy uncomfortably enthusiastic, but she then cattily tries to stake her claim amid her rival females, Tiger Lily (Alanna Saunders) and Tinker Bell.
I want to take a moment to say that I don’t want to come across like I’m slut shaming Wendy. It’s perfectly reasonable for someone to express that level of interest in someone else. It’s just that the audience is given no reason as to why she’d be so drawn to Peter Pan. In this day and age, it’s harder to suspend disbelief to that extent. We expect more from the interactions between characters. We expect to see why Tinker Bell is so possessive and what it is about Peter than makes Tiger Lily willing to go toe to toe with this interloper. I suppose it’s more that I’m disappointed with the writing and characterization than I am with the character itself. I’ll get into it more in the final thoughts.
Not only does Peter Pan have a devoted feminine following, he inspires a group of lost “boys” to follow his every command. While most productions feature a much younger array of young men for this role, the lost “boys” of this Neverland were much older than expected. This made some of the interactions between them and Tiger Lily’s Indians hilarious and inexplicably homoerotic. I want to mention that I’m not complaining about that. I’m all for adding homoeroticism to things. It was just a pleasant surprise.
Speaking of Tiger Lily and her native band, I was impressed by the way they tried to update the production to make it less racist while still engaging in a number of racist tropes. I mean, their costuming and make-up was just sort of surreal. My mom chortled when the loincloth-wearing Indians came on the screen and I just laughed my head off when they upgraded their initial look by adding feathers and other accessories. It was just multiple shades of ridiculous.
An Awful Big Adventure
The real reason I sat down to watch Peter Pan Live and the only reason I remained was Christopher Walken as Captain Hook and his merry band of pirates. For all intents and purposes, Christopher Walken was just playing Christopher Walken in pirate attire. For the first chunk of the show, he had a bit of a British accent going on. As time wore on, that accent faded with each passing line. I didn’t care because it didn’t matter. He was just a hoot. His pirate crew was hysterical. At one point, I had this to say about them: “There’s gay. There’s musical theater gay. Then, there’s the kind of gay that the pirates of Neverland embody. It is the best.” That’s all you really need to know.
If it wasn’t for Hook, I don’t think the show would have been able to keep me watching as long as it did. I could have been playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. Instead, I sat through the whole poorly paced show until the end. There were the added ballads that weren’t from the original show. There was the random sub-plot of Hook’s decision to blow up the island that was also not in the original show. It was like they decided that they had to devote three hours to this and they were going to pad for time if they needed to. As such, the production just felt like it was dragging along.
Peter Pan saves the day after a half-assed swordfight and the children go back to Neverland, leaving their leader behind. Years pass and Wendy is now a grown woman with a daughter of her own. Peter returns and the daughter insists on going off with him. Wendy is pleased as punch to let her daughter go off with the mysterious boy who only goes through the motions of caring about other people. The show ends and we are finally free to do other things with our lives.
I’m not going to say that I regret watching it. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been and I feared it would be. It was just missing so much sparkle and pizzazz. They could have done so much better but they insist on keeping the bar set so low as to make any success on their part seem greater by comparison.
At the end of the 1960 Peter Pan, the titular hero returns to reclaim his Wendy only to find that she’s gotten positively matronly. Of course she can’t go back to Neverland. She grew up and Neverland is only for the young. Therefore, it makes a certain sort of sense that he’d take her daughter instead. For Spring Cleaning, of course. Wendy allows this with a certain amount of reluctance because she knows that this is going to ultimately result in some serious emotional issues for her daughter. It’s like a trainwreck that she wants to stop but ultimately can’t because she remembers the allure of this boy. She’s faced with the dilemma of trying to keep her daughter away from a boy she knows is no good. Ultimately, her daughter has to make her own mistakes.
When Minnie Driver‘s grown-up Wendy in Peter Pan Live! sends her daughter off with Peter, it’s with enthusiasm. Not only that, she talks about how each of her female descendants should go off with Peter Pan so that he’ll endure and someone will always be there to look after him. Yes, she wants to sign her family up for a form of servitude with the mask of adventure. That adjustment to the character of adult Wendy just made me terribly uncomfortable. Again, what’s so awesome about Peter Pan and why doesn’t Wendy have respect for herself and for her daughter? They deserve so much better.
Then again, Peter Pan wasn’t written for girls or with any attempt at making girls anything more than props to hold up the hero. It was written in a time when girls weren’t expected to have childhoods inasmuch as they were preparing for the day when they would marry and start families of their own. Wendy’s focus on making a pretend family with Peter Pan is just what was expected of young ladies at that time. Of course she’d be so focused on trying to civilize him. That’s what women were supposed to do.
For my final, final thought, let’s talk about their attempt to make the Indians a little less racist. I appreciate what they did there. Truly. I like how they replaced “Ugg-a-wugg” with words that actually sounded like they would be coming out of the mouth of an Indian. I also appreciate how even NBC knows that “redskin” is a slur that shouldn’t be on Prime Time TV. If only a certain football team would learn that lesson. That said, it’s really difficult to make a group of characters originally written as a stereotype seem less so. It was a noble attempt, but a failed one nonetheless. Still, I’ll give them points for effort.
The production’s greatest sin, however, was its pacing and padding for time. It was slow and boring. If you want to get people excited by theater, you’re going to have to do a whole lot better than that. We’ll see what show they decide to mangle next year. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable.