It is only the second year in a row that NBC has aired a live musical in December, but it already feels like something of a holiday tradition. As with most traditions, it doesn’t really matter if it is “good” or not; the relevant thing is that it exists, and is capable of absorbing all of the good or ill will thrown its way. Last year’s widely watched production of The Sound of Music was often wildly unprofessional, and yet I was utterly charmed by it (even as I cackled at all the mean, apt tweets about Carrie Underwood’s acting skills). Thursday night’s live version of Peter Pan was an improvement in almost every way, but I suspect it could have been much, much worse and still left me with the same cozy, anachronistic feeling. In no time at all, these live musicals have made themselves into communal events, and there is something lovely about sharing an experience with so many other people, even if most of what we are sharing is snark and shock that anything so visually unpolished could possibly air on network television. If the way we save Tinkerbell these days is with a hashtag, well, at least we’re still saving Tinkerbell together.
Peter Pan Live! was a much more ambitious and skilled staging than The Sound of Music. Allison Williams wildly exceeded my admittedly very low expectations of her, not only performing circles around Underwood, but doing a flat-out good job, even while saddled with an unnecessary British accent. Christopher Walken as Captain Hook behaved exactly like Christopher Walken, which is to say as though he were operating in his own personal time zone. He sometimes appeared to have forgotten his lines, and at other times it seemed as though he just wanted it to seem like he had forgotten his lines. At other times he tap-danced his heart out. A little more energy might have gone well with his dashing beauty mark, but you don’t hire Christopher Walken so that he’ll give you a predictable performance. Broadway star Kelli O’Hara, who played Mrs. Darling, was a reminder that there are very talented people who do live theater with unerring excellence every night and NBC might consider hiring such a person to be the star of the show next time. And then there was the dog playing Nana. She can really turn down a bed.
In general, the production was much more grand and visually exciting than last year’s—and not only because of Christian Borle’s bulging arm muscles in the role of Smee. The camera, especially at the start, was almost queasily mobile, but it settled down eventually. And thank goodness: extensively choreographed dance routines from three different troupes—the Lost Boys, The Pirates, and Tiger Lily’s tribe—wouldn’t have looked great while wobbling. The wires that made the flying possible were plain to see (they don’t make flying wires in a translucent material?), but the early scene of Peter and the Darlings soaring out of the house into the night was genuinely joyful. And the Technicolor Neverland sets were like cotton candy for the eyes: an intense and immediate sugar rush.
The real problem for Peter Pan Live! was the source material. That is one weird musical! I grew up watching a worn-out VHS of the Mary Martin version (performed live on television in 1960), and while I recalled lots of angst about mothers and aging, I was not quite prepared for the show’s other endlessly odd innuendos. It’s not just the Lost Boys who are longing for a mother, but the grown pirates, too, who want to kidnap the teenage Wendy and make her their mother (but, you know, not in a creepy way). Peter may be a perpetual boy, but that doesn’t stop Tinkerbell, Wendy, and Tiger Lily from territorially fighting over him, a simmering subtext of nasty girl-on-girl competition over an emotionally stunted man-child. (Peter Pan only passes the Bechdel test because Peter is traditionally in drag.) There are the racial issues surrounding Tiger Lily, who in this version got a slightly updated song, but who was still surrounded by men in loincloths and convinced that the white Peter was the “sun and the moon and the stars.” And, as people on Twitter had endless fun pointing out, there was the homoerotic subtext of the Lost Boys (who share one bathtub) and the very muscular pirates, who dance with each other in pantaloons. Even the ticking crocodile, played by a person in a purple spandex suit, was suggestively slinky.
There were also some serious problems with the show’s book—made worse by the direction, which had clearly focused on the song-and-dance numbers: The stretches of dialogue barely, if ever, made any sense. Their general incoherence made the show feel surprisingly momentum-less, even—perhaps especially—when it came to the fight sequences. If the pirates are really supposed to be a scary threat, maybe they could act like it from time to time? The climactic battle between Peter and Captain Hook had all the urgency of slo-mo waltz, with Hook and Peter lackadaisically waving swords in one another’s direction like they were pipe-cleaners. All the hard-to-grasp dialogue was even more frustrating because it could so easily have been cut, which might have brought the show’s run time down to a perfect two hours. Yes, it’s true, if these live extravaganzas were only two hours, NBC would not be able to air 30 minutes of Walmart commercials starring Melissa Joan Hart, but it’s sure nice to dream that some day—maybe next year!—quality might be put before ad dollars.