December 7, 2014

About NBC's "Peter Pan"

THIS Hook didn't phone it in...
(illustration by F. D. Bedford, 1911)
It's a Friday night; I've had 24 hours to mull over last evening's live telecast of Peter Pan and I have some thoughts. If only I had a blog where I could share them with...

WAIT! I DO have a blog! (Silly me - kind of forgot myself there for a second. Won't happen again.)

A survey of reactions on social media has taught me that I'm entering treacherous territory. For every individual wallowing in the Schadenfreude of gleeful criticism, there's another professing earnest admiration for the entire concept and its execution. So I'm probably doomed to annoy or anatagonize somebody no matter what. 

But hey, I probably do that on a weekly basis anyway, so here goes nothin'.

Peter Pan Live was markedly better than last year's sodden, awkward, miscast Sound of Music, but that really is as faint as praise gets without entirely "damning".

For me, the show lacked pace, sparkle, and a sense of "The Joy Of Performing". I found that the lack of a live audience resulted in a sterile, artificial, cautious ambience. The actors, (though not all of them) appeared to be trying not to screw up. There was the vibe of first-time drivers doing 45 MPH in the right lane of a high-speed highway. The lack of an actual audience providing laughs, applause and other interactions can't help but have contributed to the situation, not to mention the frequent and extended commercial breaks. I imagine the cast standing around, all dressed up, adrenaline pumping, trying to stay in character while the ads rolled.

See, the reason the entire world likes Broadway musicals is because of the irrepressible high-octane, optimistic ENERGY we Americans summon up. It's in our DNA; we're the people who had the energy and gumption to get the hell out of Europe or wherever and journey to America for (ostensibly) a better life. And this energy informs our musical theater.

NBC's Peter Pan was a couple of quarts low in this respect.

Allison Williams exemplified this issue in her opening scene in the Darling children's nursery. Her singing voice, a smallish if attractive instrument, betrayed nerves in a lack of breath support and a little clunkiness in negotiating the break between registers. She didn't "take the stage"; rather, she felt her way into the show, gradually getting her sea-legs.

I believe she was awarded the part not (entirely) because her dad is a Big Dog at the network, but because she looks EXACTLY as we all imagine Peter Pan. She actually looked a lot like the Pan of the Disney animated film. But her voice IS small, with limited range; she sang "Neverland" in A, a half-step lower than Mary Martin's classic rendition in B flat. This was clearly done to spare us strained notes at the high end, but resulted in nearly inaudible, breathy lower notes at the bottom. 

If she sang without the amplification standard in modern music theater, no one would hear her over the orchestra past, say, row 10.

Her acting was far from amateurish, and she had a likeable presence. But that's not the same thing as "charisma". Bear in mind, the limitation a telecast like this imposes on the artists is that all they get is an opening night, and few musicals are at their best on opening night. It takes a run of performances for a cast to find their rhythm, chemistry, nuances and best pacing. It takes audience reaction to know if what you're doing is working.

Williams' weakness lay in too-often singing to Wendy or some other character rather than to the "audience", which is a big deal, actually. As an example of what I mean, let's compare her reading of "Neverland" to Martin's. 

First click here to watch a video of Mary Martin's performance. Notice how, as she begins the song, Martin sings directly to her Wendy to establish the point of the song, but then changes the angle of her face to move away from the girl and simply sing. Pan is really dreaming of his beloved home as he describes it, and singing "out" to the "audience" (also non-existent here) turns you and me into the group of people to whom he's expressing himself. It frees the artist to access a greater range of freedom in acting, and makes the viewer feel included.

Now  click here to see the same number as sung by Williams. What strikes you? Do you see how her eyes remain locked on Wendy's for far too long? It makes her appear to be afraid to look away and sing to the tens of millions she knows are watching, even if she wasn't feeling that way. And it's not necessary; we KNOW to whom you're singing already - an occasional glance at Wendy is sufficient to re-establish the relationship. 

Martin was really PERFORMING. Williams was delivering the notes and words accurately.

{Brief blog digression. Why, actually, is the role of Peter always assigned to a female? Is it a rule? If I, Your Humble Blogger, were to plan a new production of the show, rather than cast an idiosyncratic 70-year-old actor as Hook (see below), I would cast Kyle Brenn as Pan. Mr. Brenn is the high-school student who was wonderful in the role of Tobias when the New York Philharmonic did their concert version of Sweeney Todd last March. And don't you wish Neil Patrick Harris had had a go at the part back in his teen-aged years? You should. End of digression}

How did you Faithful Readers feel about the flying? I'm not going to carp about visible cables; that's the deal with flying on stage. HOWEVER: it struck me, and perhaps some of you, that this "special effect" looked pretty much the same here in the Year of our Lord 2014 as it did in the '50's and 60's. Peter Pan went up and then swung back and forth like pendulum. That's it? We can't somehow figure a way for this god-like creature to have a bit more directional control in the bedroom? It just seems like they put this element on cruise control, but this is starting to sound like carping, so - never mind.

Hook.  Captain Hook  James T. Hook.


I enjoy listening to Tony Kornheiser's radio show on 980 AM radio in Washington. He's an educated, erudite, witty talk-show host who has a wide range of interests in addition to the sports-talk genre which is the program's nominal raison d'etre. So this morning Tony and his crew were re-hashing the Peter Pan telecast, and spent a lot of time reviewing Christopaher Walken's "star-turn" in the role of Hook. Tony was very dismissive, finding the actor hopelessy miscast and tired-looking. His co-host Jeanne McManus, on the other hand, positively gushed: "Oh, I LOVED him! I like him in anything he does! He's one of those actors you just can't take your eyes off of!!!"

Like that.

I imagine most viewers adopted one or the other of those extremes. For Walken geeks, the man can do no wrong, and they will dutifully bring up the actor's long history as a song-and-dance man. I myself remember his video of Puss In Boots, a movie my toddler-aged daughter watched over and over.

But he was a catastrophically awful Captain Hook. Oh my. Sluggish, laconic, no sense of character, no vocal energy - I could go on and on. He appeared to be marking in his initial scenes. I truly believe I caught him reading lyrics off cue cards in an early number. He was "staring with purpose" at a fixed point off camera while singing, slumped in his throne like a man with a hangover.

My friend, if you're going to be Captain Hook you have to SELL IT. 

Robert Bianco, TV critic for USA Today, remarked in his review that Walken gave the impression he was considering not returning after each commercial break.

But here's where his style created stylistic dissonance: the material given to Hook both implies and demands a certain style. Hook is a dandy, a supercilious fop, a bit prissy, which is a delightfully ironic note for a "bloodthirsty pirate" and prevents the character from being too threatening for younger audience members. This is how the great Cyril Ritchard played him, and it's how Dustin Hoffman played him in the Robin Williams version of the story. 

What I mean by "the material given him" is that schtick in which Smee, just as Hook is about to launch into a rant, asks "Tempo, Captain? What tempo?" And Hook answers "Tarantella" or some other dance, spurring his pirate orchestra to wax lyrical. This schtick demands a delivery of elegant silliness and a certain putting on of airs like an "artiste".

Walken didn't go for that, which rendered the whole "Tempo" thing kind of puzzling and irrelevant. In my opinion. (You are allowed to disagree, if you can live with the fact that I will think less of you.)

And finally, the decision to spare Walken from playing the father was a bad, bad, bad, bad, REALLY bad decision. It should be patently obvious that Mr. Darling, in his children's minds IS Captain Hook. If you're going to ignore that little metaphor, then for Gawd's sake DO NOT have Father turn into Mr. Smee. NO! NO! NO! MAKES NO SENSE! DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING! NO MEANING!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?!?  *pant pant pant* (There. I feel better now.)

The fight choreography was tepid and careful, considering that the production was reportedly in rehearsal for a long period of time (I read "months" in one article). Again, I feel that the presence of a real audience might have lent more intensity, urgency and "going for it" to the fight sequences. That said, perhaps intensity wasn't the goal, mindful of the youngest viewers' capacities for rough stuff.

It was too long. The commercials made my liver itch with impatience. The added material, not in the original show, added only length, never a good reason for inserting a new song.

SO: what did Mr. Cranky-pants actually like? Anything?

I thought Wendy was okay. I thought Kelli O'Hara as the Mother was GREAT. I missed her when she wasn't on stage and was glad to welcome her back. THAT, my friends, was a total pro at work.

And the dog was great! Hit every mark! Now I want to teach my beagle to turn down the bed. Plus, how did they ever corral a major actress like Minni Driver to play the walk-on role of grownup Wendy? Geez. 

Overall grade: C+.  I know some theater-loving folk who aren't in favor of criticising the show; they want to reward NBC for taking a risk with live theater; they're aware of the huge obstacles involved in bringing off such a project, and they feel that encouragement is due. My problem: I can't pretend to like something I didn't. Ask yourself: if this had been presented on Broadway, would you be generous?

But keep trying, NBC. Keep trying until you get it as right as a single performance without an audience can ever be. I'll be back next December with high hopes (but moderate expectations) for The Music Man. 

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