After the popular but poor “The Sound of Music Live!,” my expectations for this year’s follow-up, “Peter Pan Live!” were low. “Music” was plagued with problems from the moment it was cast to the actual performance — hampered by its drab production value. In the year since that production, producers Craig Zaden and Neil Maron (“Smash”) have apparently learned some important lessons and pieced together an entertaining broadcast. “Peter Pan” was an improvement in almost every way from “The Sound of Music,” giving me hope that these yearly presentations will become must-see events.
Peter Pan Live!
Live Event-Available for Streaming and Replaying on Sat. Dec. 13 at 8 p.m.
“Peter Pan Live!” follows the story of the classic musical by Jule Styne, Betty Comdon and Adolph Green. When Peter Pan (Allison Williams, “Girls”) is discovered in the bedroom of the Darling Children trying to find his shadow, he teaches them how to fly and takes them away to Neverland where they play with the Lost Boys and the Indians on the Island and fight the menacing Captain Hook (Christopher Walken, “Hairspray”).
The biggest upgrade from the previous year was in the casting. In “Music,” the leading role was filled by Carrie Underwood, a singer who lacked the acting ability to nail the part of Maria Von Trapp. This time, the producers decided to cast a proven actress as Peter. Even if the lower-profile cost them viewers and didn’t quite have Underwood’s vocal chops, it still was a net gain for the production. She brought the character to life with a performance that was brimming with energy and the sense that she was having a lot of fun in the role.
The casting directors did well by Williams, surrounding her with a talented group of screen and stage actors. There were times in the show where Walken was hamming up his character to great levels, especially in “Captain Hook’s Waltz.” In others, it seemed like he wasn’t putting in a lot of effort (Though, Walken’s half-assed tap dancing may be the funniest thing to come from the night.) University alum Taylor Louderman brought her beautiful voice and sense of wonder to the role of Wendy. Even if there wasn’t enough of Kelli O’Hara (“South Pacific”) as Mrs. Darling, her stunning soprano was refreshing to the ear each time she was on screen. The one hole in the ensemble was the young actor who played Michael Darling. He looked like he was having a blast but wasn’t given enough direction to calm down his mannerisms.
Other areas where “Peter Pan” progressed greatly over “Sound of Music” were in the production design and the theatricality. Last year’s show had dull backgrounds and costumes that took away from the quality of the broadcast. This year, the show used its higher budget to create sets which had lots of excellent art and intricate details. The Neverland set looked gorgeous on TV. This year’s production was much more theatrical, with strong flying work, fantastic choreography (especially in the number “True Blood Brothers”) and magnificent CGI effects. The idea of having CGI Tinkerbell instead of the traditional spotlight took awhile for me to warm up to, but by the end, each appearance was welcomed.
The one thing that weakened from “Music” was the camerawork. Television director Glenn Weiss (known for his many award show broadcasts) brought a more diverse set of camera angles and movement to the screen. However, in the opening flying sequence, the show’s painstaking effort to not show the lighting rigs on the top of the set killed any momentum that “I’m Flying” was building.
“Peter Pan Live!” was not perfect. There were mistakes in the casting of supporting actors and the television direction sometimes hindered scenes. However, by the time Williams was asking us to clap if we believed in fairies and the last chords of the wistful “Never Never Land” played, I was filled with a childlike sense of wonder and happiness. Zaden and Maron should be proud of themselves for the steps they took in this production. Hopefully the softer ratings don’t scare NBC out of doing more musicals, because, given the strides taken in “Pan,” the next go-around could be truly special.