The 1950s musical has always been an intermittently delightful but very uneven piece, and the presence of multiple creators (composers Moose Charlap and Jule Styne; lyricists Carolyn Leigh, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green) indicates that it wasn’t an easy project to launch. (Maybe more than that, it suggests the importance of tailoring Peter Pan for Mary Martin – more on that later.)
For me, the show is enthralling while it’s in the nursery (many of the best numbers are here, too – “Neverland,” “Tender Shepherd,” “I’ve Gotta Crow”). The actual Neverland sequence is overextended and under-written. But it can work – sometimes.
Which, of course, brings us to last night. NBC has a proud Peter Pan tradition – live telecasts with Mary Martin in 1955, ’56 and ’60 became audience favorites (and the 1960 has been shown again many times).
Martin herself – one of musical theatre’s greatest performers, here in her signature role – throws an impossibly big shadow. Vocally, especially – the score was custom fit to her talents. It’s hard to imagine another Peter who could bind the actual crowing so seamlessly into song, or handle the coloratura filigree of “Oh, My Mysterious Lady” (to mention a couple of examples among many).
Two more recent Peters set a standard that’s a bit less out of reach. Sandy Duncan was a patchy singer, but (here and everywhere) a beguiling, sunny presence – as well as a kick-ass dancer. Cathy Rigby was even less secure vocally, but she had her own personal warmth, and as a former Olympic medal-winning gymnast, she certainly had moves (flying was her Peter Pan specialty). Playbill.com has helpfully supplied a collage of film excerpts, which I think speaks to the three performers and their virtues:
Where is NBC’s Allison Williams on this continuum? I’d say her voice is at least as good as Duncan’s or Rigby’s – though it sounded somewhat limited in range and volume, and she tended to cut off sustained notes quickly, the core is an appealing, pretty sound.
But the actual singing was often disappointingly legato-free, and she doesn’t know how to shape a phrase – nor (more seriously) how to communicate any color in the lyrics.
This reveals the bigger – to my mind, insurmountable – problem. There was hardly any acting. Williams did try to suggest something more blustery and boyish than other female Peter Pans have managed (and she looked good). But it was a performance without nuances, or really any sense of emotional connection to what was going on.
I’ll admit that many of Mary Martin’s acting moments are etched forever in my memory – the wary, elliptical way she handles telling Wendy about her identity and origins (“It’s a secret place…”, “would you believe me if I told you?”), or watching the play of reactions on her face when she hears Tinkerbell talking. But these aren’t moments that belong only to Martin – there are other ways to play them.
Yet, Williams found almost nothing in them. Even the segment where Peter and the Boys initially believe Wendy has died – and then discover she’s alive. This is something I thought impossible to ruin – but here, it hardly registered. What Williams offered instead was something more generalized, peevish and contemporary – for the first time, I expected Peter Pan to answer a question with, “Whatever.”
It was a dispiriting start for what proved a chaotically busy but pretty much idea-free evening.
I’ll make two exceptions. One is Kelli O’Hara, who as always was radiantly lovely in every way, and whose (too few) singing moments reminded us what a musical can sound like. (In fact, that was also a problem – NBC has now defined what I’ll forever think of as the Benanti-O’Hara Effect: when the excellence of a supporting performer mercilessly exposes the weaknesses of the show’s stars.)
And there’s Christopher Walken. Really, I’m not sure what to say. He’s never dull – there’s always something unexpected and subversive to keep us entertained. But this time, I honestly couldn’t tell if he was deliberately underplaying… or if he could barely remember what he was supposed to do. And though he has a singing voice of sorts – and formidable dancing skills – neither was seen to best effect here. (And he is, after all 71 – maybe his Hook days should have been several decades ago.)
I’ll pass over the rest of the cast, since nothing anybody else did seems worthy of special comment – except to say that shouldn’t the Lost Boys be of various ages? Here they all looked like they were in their mid-20s, and had run away not from their families but from a low-budget road company of Oliver.
I thought the Victorian London designs were attractive – very much in the tradition of the earlier telecasts, which also made it hard not to compare.
As for the Neverland scenery? Hideous in every possible respect – garish, tacky, all over the map stylistically. Sometimes, it looked like a cheap board game, adorned with wedding table centerpieces. Sometimes, it looked like a Las Vegas island-themed cocktail lounge.
And the show was interminable, with added songs (from other Jule Styne shows) that added nothing. Somewhere near the midpoint, I went from looking at my watch every few seconds to tapping it to make sure it was still working. The 1960 Peter Pan is 100 minutes that (ahem) flies by. This one (admittedly including long commercial breaks) was 180 minutes that felt like two weeks.
Speaking of flying – here was one area I expected would be improved by advances in technology, but not so – the wires were every bit as visible as they were almost 60 years ago, the actual aerialism no more adventurous. Like everything else about the show, it was far more earthbound than one hoped.
Still, I’m going to end by thanking NBC. Though I don’t think this was their intention, over the last two years, they have now provided two Christmas shows that paid tribute to the unique brilliance of Mary Martin. And for that, I’m grateful.