Sweet nostalgia engulfed me as I settled in on Thursday evening hoping to recapture the pleasures of a special TV event from broadcast television’s early years. The opening theme brought a tear… and suddenly … There it was! The familiar children’s bedroom and the grand window – adventure’s gateway – through which the kids would FLY! I was home for the holidays, about to relive the emotional impact of the revered NBC Mary Martin/Cyril Ritchard version(s) of Peter Pan!
Good will’s momentum carried me through the first few scenes in the Darling children’s bedroom, even while I resented the dumping of Lynn Fontanne’s lovely opening narration from the original. Did its absence signal contemporary disdain for poetic metaphor? “Some say that as we grow up we become different people at different ages, but I don’t believe this. I think we remain the same throughout, merely passing in these years from one room to another, but always in the same house.” A bit wordy, perhaps, its wistful tone a little too thoughtful for the contemporary Walmart consumer (Walmart sponsored the show). But I missed the poetic gesture that was so important in setting the ambiguously light-hearted tone on which the whole Peter Pan conceit depends. Still, the juggernaut of NBC’s update of the J.M. Barrie classic had set sail, and getting through the creaking, leaky artifact was the modest goal of an industry far removed from the era of live television drama.
Soon, hobbled with the charmless performances of the entire Darling clan, all rushing through their lines as if they hadn’t a hope of finishing on time, Peter Pan Live! signaled that television’s first Golden Age was ancient history, and that its current standards had little to do with the theatrical and television craft that once were its hallmarks.
Last hopes vanished with Peter’s arrival. Who could top the folly of casting Allison Williams as Peter? She mumbles through her text like a non-actor, with little concern beyond flashing her magnificent mouthful of teeth while emitting reedy renderings of appointed songs. Compare Mary Martin’s studied and graceful rendition of the opening theme song, Neverland, to get a feel for how far we have not come: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJFtCfHDFfwtitleerings At 42, Martin was wholly unbelievable as a boy, but she still sold every line with such distinction that she was irresistible. Not Williams.
Indeed, they did top the Williams folly with Christopher “Mister Quelude” Walken – I simply cannot imagine a worse choice for Captain Hook, even counting Dustin Hoffman’s disastrous turn in the Spielberg film, Hook. His Zombie Apocalypse performance is no substitute for the flamboyant fun of Cyril Ritchard’s immortal Hook. Walken hasn’t memorized a line in decades, much less delivered one – you can see him reading cue cards here, deadpan as usual. His every performance has the quality of a first read-through at best, with the star saving himself for the camera. This is truly offensive cult star-fucking – why cast this guy? It’s as wrong-headed as casting Dick Cheney to play Mother Theresa. It’s time for Walken (and his fellow travellers, the spiritless trio of Bill Murray, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro) to stop taking our money and make room for real, still-living actors. And if you insist on raiding the alt-actor cupboard, Willem Dafoe might at least have brought some enthusiasm to the role.
Even Walken’s well-remembered dance skills in Pennies From Heaven are grudgingly absent here. Did they cast Walken as a politically-correct foil for Cyril Ritchard’s flamboyant caricature from half a century ago? Were they afraid the former Hook seemed too “gay”? Well, I’ve got a surprise for you, NBC! The bizarre sexual politics of Peter Pan offers a smorgasbord of sexual ambiguity: No Women Allowed On Pirate Ships! is your first clue, Lost Boys your second, and Peter Pan’s peculiar tradition of casting women in the title role a disturbing third. Although the latter practice is rooted in Britain’s 19th century child labour laws, a hearty whiff of misogyny in the concept of Peter’s unrealized manhood’s being “womanly” pretty much condemns the whole enterprise as beyond redemption in contemporary terms. And,it’s hard to imagine Mister Quelude tackling O, My Mysterious Lady with anything resembling the fey relish of Ritchard’s version – a comic highpoint of the show.
Finally, the direction was a failed attempt at crowd control, nothing more: It all looked severely under-rehearsed, and even worse, underinterpreted. The Mary Martins’ mises en scenes made this show look like gangs of hooligans running riot in a supermarket: Great remembered moments from the 1950s were squandered in the joyless rush to the finish line. The Lost Boys – here, not juveniles but all strapping fellows in need of shaves – were said to have fallen from their baby carriages: So why were they in ill-fitting school uniforms? The pirates were abandoned to helpless orbit around Walken’s black hole performance. Only Kelli O’Hara acquits herself as Mrs. Darling with touching authority. But… why cast Minnie Driver as Wendy Redux? Nothing’s worth doing without star power, I guess.
From its Walmart-friendly colour scheme, to its casting of self-indulgent actors who are too circumspectly “hip” to give real performances, the whole project ignores the needs of children for sincerity and focused intention. Frankly, the play’s middle acts were a hard slog even in its earlier versions; There’s just not enough story to support its length. I remember struggling with its weighty running time in 1954 and ’56 (it was topped a few years later only by Amahl And The Night Visitors, which I suspect has never actually ended to this day). What saved it then were the inspired performances, catchy songs and wistful scenes bookending the story. The final scene gives the children’s audience a touching and rather melancholy view of life-to-come. It was unforgettable at the time, and ironic proof that, even last night on NBC, you can’t go home again.