“I am youth, I am joy, I am freedom!” Peter declares with a passion that can work in performance as well as on paper. Of course, this is an abbreviated version of the response as written by J. M. Barrie for his most famous play, Peter Pan. The cut, among others in the script, was necessary as Jerome Robbins was to add over 45 minutes of song and dance to the masterpiece for his musical comedy adaptation. Betty Comden and Adolph Green with Jule Styne were brought in to write a complete new score but they convinced Martin and Robbins to keep part of the Caroyn Leigh and Mark “Moose” Charlap score which included such delights as “Tender Shepherd”, “I’ve Gotta Crow” and “I’m Flying”. In addition to the new songs; “Captain Hook’s Waltz”, “Oh, My Mysterious Lady”, and “Never Never Land”, they added some comedy that the musical was sorely lacking in order to be categorized as a musical comedy. Only scheduled to play Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre for a limited run of 152 performances (Jean Arthur in the Leonard Bernstein adaptation had just played on the Great White Way a few years before) the sets and cast repeated their performances in a truncated 90 minute version to fit the two hour time span on that March 7th evening of 1955. The rest is legendary. (For a detailed account of the process of creating the musical please refer to my book, Peter Pan On Stage and Screen, which includes interviews by Mary Martin, Comden and Green, Jule Styne, Jerome Robbins, Sondra Lee, Kathleen Nolan, and others involved in the play.) More television sets were tuned in to that “live” performance than any before other before.
The following year most of the cast and creative personal gave a repeat performance, again “live”, and six years later a video-taped version was put in the can for posterity. Every few years that tape would be pulled out of moth balls by NBC. The last time I remember was in 1989 when the telecast was met with great reception, before, during, and after, giving NBC the highest ratings they had received in some time. The musical later repeated its success when Sandy Duncan played the role on Broadway and on tour, and again when Cathy Rigby and her husband leased it for almost twenty years with equal reception. Meanwhile, the Mary Martin video was released on VHS, Laser Disc, and finally, DVD. The classic eventually was out of print making the official DVD release hard to find and expensive to purchase. Even black market versions became a popular item on EBay. Rigby’s version was also taped for the A & E channel, eventually released on DVD. Therefore, Thursday evening, I could not wait to get “home” in my friend Suzi’s living room to watch in its entirety a new “live” version of Peter Pan starring Allison Williams and Christopher Walken. Clad in my pajamas with a few of my favorite treats, Yoo-Hoo and a package of pistachio nuts, I snuggled with a blanket to watch one of my favorite musicals.
On Friday morning I avoided the newspapers and radio so I would be able to write this review without any influence from professional critics. During my ride to school, I was lamenting over the production I had seen the night before; whether I was, perhaps, out of touch to fully appreciate what I had witnessed the night before. When I got to my office I asked my friend if he and his kids watched Peter Pan the night before. “No,” he replied.
“That’s good,” I retorted, “It was too long and it was not very good.”
“That’s what I heard on the radio this morning,” he answered back. I felt a little better in that my reaction was met with equal reception by someone else. Well, not really better because the last thing I wanted was Peter Pan to fail on his new flight.
What went wrong? The recipe for success was well established with very little for a producer to worry about except getting the talents necessary to give the musical a “face-lift.” Certainly the script as a whole needed no tampering or additions. Sadly, the production sunk with the addition of songs from other Comden and Green/Jule Styne musicals, not to mention too much choreography for the Lost Boys that was too similar to that in Newsies and new dialogue that merely lengthened the musical to an unacceptable time period; three hours! Or, perhaps, two and a half hours with thirty minutes of horrible Walmart commercials. I don’t know who that family was but they do not shop at any other Walmarts I know.
Allison Williams looked perfectly acceptable as a boy of twelve or so, and certainly has a charming singing voice. In fact, for the first few moments I was rather pleased with her underplaying of the role; Peter lives adventures all of the time so he is not that excited about flying, fairies, or Never Never Land. However, when he is seducing Wendy to fly away with him, he should show a little passion or, at least manipulation. Alas, this was not to be. For the rest of the evening, Williams sounded like Michelle Dockery (whom I adore) who plays Lady Mary Crawley in the popular television series, Downton Abbey. The accent was correct but there was nothing behind it; similar to a high school student’s performance of a British character who has the accent down pat but provides no substance in the role. Was this extremely subdued performance the choice of the actress or the director’s? Perhaps, as the musical was being broadcast on a medium that magnifies, the decision was to give the boy who wouldn’t grow up a sense of reality. Unfortunately, reality is not as important as believability; believability mixed with passion and magic. And that was lacking in Allison William’s performance as Peter Pan. But she wasn’t alone.
Captain Hook is a wonderfully complex character who should at once scare children while he delights the adults with subtle humor. Christopher Walken was so subtle that Captain Hook was as boring as Peter. His singing was often weak; his humor on the same level in every scene, and his handling of “Captain Hook’s Waltz” was a damn shame. Walken seemed to be the only character without a British accent, sounding more like he resided in Brooklyn, New York. There was tap dance routine with Walken and the other Pirates that obviously was created to focus on the actor’s terpsichorean abilities but it was completely wrong for the musical. With the exception of turns by Sondra Lee as Tiger Lily and her tribe, and Heller Halliday’s Liza and Never Land animals, Jerome Robbins was careful not to have the characters simply break out in a dance, thus stopping the show in the wrong way. This new version stopped too much in a pace that merely plodded along.
The many changes in the script didn’t help the performers. During what should be Peter’s most impassioned moment, Allison Williams implored the children watching that they might, perhaps clap their hands to save Tinker Bell. Perhaps? Might? Are these the words a child would speak while begging for help for his best friend? Hardly! During Hook’s interrogation of Wendy on the Pirate ship, all humor was lost when Hook asks her to give a few last words to the doomed boys. Although the published script allows her advice, Cyril Ritchard and other actors later playing Hook seized the opportunity to cut her off with a “thank you” when she started “These are my words…” The added songs served merely as embarrassment to the musical as well as Mr. Walken’s performance. Even the beautiful “When I Went Home”, created by Leigh and Charlap in 1954, which was noted in California by Variety as “the second act socko number…a plaintive refrain”, was deemed wrong by the producers for the musical. “The reason that it was withdrawn was that they [the audience] didn’t even applaud,” Sondra Lee explained in an interview with this writer. “They didn’t applaud for the Gettysburg Address either. I believe that it was so deeply wounding that people would not want to applaud. It is the story of Peter Pan.” It was replaced by “Distant Melody” but in this adaptation, both lullabies were sung.
Another disappointment was the casting of Nana. Instead of creating charm with an actor or actress dressed as a dog, we were given Annie’s dog. For what? Realism? Later we will accept the cute crocodile but not a dog? And what was with the overly decorated Darling nursery with Christmas decorations? The whole reason the Darlings have a dog as their children’s nurse is that they can’t afford a human.
During the original run of Peter Pan in California in 1954, it was saddled with many issues the major problem being that its star, Mary Martin, played second fiddle to Cyril Richard’s performance as Captain Hook as well Sondra Lee’s. Oddly, in this 2014 adaption, the actors playing Peter, Captain Hook, and even Tiger Lily (who was given very little to do), played not just second fiddle but much lower to Kelli O’Hara’s touching and beautifully sung Mrs. Darling, and Christian Borle’s very funny Mr. Smee and Mr. George Darling. In fact, Borle provided what little humor was infused in this production. But whose idea was it to double cast Smee and Mr. Darling instead of the classic double casting of Hook and Mr. Darling? What a shame that Mr. Borle did not play Captain Hook as well.
Perhaps the shame of this new production was that NBC did not look further than the number of viewers it received for its poorly conceived Sound of Music the year before. Perhaps they needed more than simply star presence for the complex roles of Peter Pan and Captain Hook. Or, maybe, just maybe; they should have pulled out the Mary Marin version which probably would have given NBC the least number of viewers acceptable without being another embarrassment. It’s the quality that matters, not the numbers.