Worthy probably isn’t the word one wants to associate with a first-class production of Peter Pan, the enduring musical about that blithe spirit of eternal youth. But NBC — attempting to catch lightning, not to say Tinkerbell, in a bottle again — acquitted itself worthily, earnestly, sometimes ploddingly and, at a few golden moments, magically. If you were prepared to hoot and howl over the casting of Allison Williams in the role immortalized by Mary Martin first on Broadway and then in the NBC telecast that drew 65 million viewers in 1955, well, your snark went unrequited. This was a much better production than last year’s Sound Of Music Live!
The Girls co-star was graceful, game, limber and in lovely voice through all three hours of the show, even if it wasn’t until nearly the end, when Peter sang to Wendy the haunting “When I Went Home,” that her ungrownup boy welled with human feeling and truly tugged at the heartstrings.
Don’t recognize the song title? That’s because “When I Went Home” was cut during the San Francisco tryout before the show came to Broadway in 1954. Written by the original team of Mark “Moose” Charlap (shockingly misidentified in the opening credits as “Maurice Charlap”) and Carolyn Leigh, the song gives Peter the back-story the show otherwise lacked, about his return home as a baby only to find he’d quickly been replaced: “You must expect to be forgotten,” he sings to Wendy, “when you’ve gone away.” It’s a keeper.
The broadcast, produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan and staged by Rob Ashford, added a couple of other songs by composer Jule Styne, who’d replaced Charlap on the road, with new lyrics by Amanda Green, the accomplished songwriter daughter of Adolph Green, who with Betty Comden was Styne’s collaborator on the revised score.
The snarkies were also undoubtedly sharpening their knives over NBC’s attempt at political correctitude by replacing Tiger Lily’s “Ugg-A-Wugg” with something called “True Blood Brothers” and more authentic Native American-style movement. I have no problem with such attempts. But the execution — right down to Alanna Saunders’ “authentic” crimson headdress and the green fringy thingy she was wearing, along with the stoop-and-hora-kicking dancers who seemed to have multihued targets painted on their rear ends — did not send ancient rootsy-connection shivers down my spine.
However, if millions watched solely for a glimpse of Brian Williams’s daughter playing something other than an empty vessel of contemporary single womanhood, they — we— got more than our money’s worth in two outstanding performances. The first, not unexpectedly, was in the louche Captain Hook of Christopher Walken, who waltzed, tangoed, tarantellaed and, bless him, tapped his way into our hearts like the trouper he is. Call it the rhythm of the ancient mariner. Ferried about in a sedan chair like a Pirate Pasha and treading the actual boards of the Jolly Roger, he was in easy, hilarious, devil-may-care command of every scene he had, and the show dragged noticeably when Hook was otherwise engaged. No one, but no one, can mutter “I’m no elf!” punctuating it with a perfect pout like Christopher Walken.
And give a major welcome to Taylor Louderman, who may be a bit too mature for Wendy but who nonetheless was utterly charming and often quite touching. Kelli O’Hara brought star quality as well to the role of Mrs. Darling. Speaking of too old, most of the Lost Boys appeared to require a good shave at least once a day. The three hours sagged at points, especially given the extremely icky Walmart ads that made it hard to maintain suspension of disbelief (not to mention suspension of flying kids — yes, you could see the wires in the Mary Martin broadcast, too, and the tradition was carried on here by Foy, still the masters of airborne acting).
Otherwise, I have no complaints. Sorry, snarkers. I believe.