It Won’t Grow Up

Peter Pan Liveuserpic=televisionLast night was the second live musical in a new NBC tradition: live theatre as a Christmas special. Last year, there was “The Sound of Music Live“; this year brought us “Peter Pan Live“. Again, as with last year, the hater and snark community was out there hot and heavy (as could clearly be seen in the responses on the Forbidden Musicals group on Facebook), although the professional reviewers treated the show a little better. The basic opinion, once you threw out the obvious haters and snark, was that this was a better effort than Sound of Music, but it had its odd flaws. That’s basically my opinion as well, but I thought I’d elaborate a bit. After all, this was live theatre (well, pre-recorded for my time zone), and I watched it, meaning some sort of write-up is due. However, this won’t be a full theatre review write-up: I feel no need to summarize the reworked plot, or to list the credits and to link to every actor in the production. You want that, you go to IMDB.

The Story

If you came into this expecting the Disney version of Peter Pan, you were likely disappointed. This was the stage musical version, famously made, umm, famous by the Mary Martin telecast on NBC (although, I’ll note for the record, I’m not a fan of Martin’s Pan — I find her voice too lilting for the role). The stage version of Peter Pan, for the record, originated out of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, and featured music by Mark “Moose” Charlap, with additional music by Jule Styne, and most of the lyrics were written by Carolyn Leigh, with additional lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It first appeared on stage in 1953 in Los Angeles, on Broadway in 1954, on TV in 1955, 1956, and 1960, with numerous stage revivals.

If you’ve seen the musical Pan on stage, you know it is a relatively short show. NBC had time to fill, so they talked to Adolph Green’s daughter Amanda, and worked in some additional music (and story to support that music). They reworked two songs from Do Re Mi: “Ambition” became “Vengeance”, and “I Know About Love” became “Only Pretend”. From Say, Darling they adapted “Something’s Always Happening on the River” into “A World Without Peter”. They brought in a song that was cut during previews in San Francisco: “When I Went Home”, and they added some reprises of existing songs. They also reworked “Ugg-a-wug” into “True Blood Brothers” to address Native American sensitivities, a move that got many upset.

In general, I liked the song additions and changes. Both “Vengeance” and “A World Without Peter” worked well for me; the plot changes to fit things in also worked. There are those purists out there who insist a show never changes; to them I say: “Get Over It!”. Many shows have undergone changes and tinkering — sometimes without the source author’s permission, sometimes with. In this case, Green was involved, so I have no problem. Both Do Re Mi and Say Darling are unlikely to be revived and have dated plots. I’ll note that even Rodgers and Hammerstein songs were reworked and reused: State Fair revised and adapted songs from both Allegro and Me and Juliet. As for the changes to Ugg-a-Wug: Again, I liked them. They added in words that were supposedly drawn from Native American languages, as opposed to nonsense words. They also got rid of clearly offensive lines, like “true noble redskin” (I also noted that in Hook’s song, they changed “massacre Indians”). Such changes will give this musical more life. I hope these changes will be worked into the licensed script as an option.

There were some story changes I didn’t like. I didn’t see the need for the “bomb the island” subplot — I think it was just a silly excuse for the “X marks the spot” and stealing the map as a different way of getting into what would have been the Mysterious Lady scene. It could have been done in a different way.

There was also the handling of the traditional breaking of the fourth wall — the moment where Peter asks the audience to clap to save Tinkerbell. Yes, they did it, although supposedly on the east coast they were asked to tweet to save her (we didn’t see that on the west coast). It seemed odd with no audience sound — perhaps they should have added the crew clapping at that point. The biggest problem was that the extending of the show moved this moment to about 10:20pm — long after the children who were watching were likely in bed.

Lastly, I’ll note that my view of Pan is colored by “Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers“, which I saw at The Blank Theatre a few years ago. Pan is not the good little boy, just as Tinkerbell is not a delightful sprite. Pan is also out for vengeance: in his case, although he wants a mother, he feels no emotion towards her. Think about this: Not only is Pan incapable of loving Wendy, Pan injures every generation by taking away their child for an unspecified time, warping their psyche, and returning them to always look for boys in their men.

The Performances

Last year, although everyone seemed to trash Carrie Underwood as Maria, I had less of a problem with her. Allison Williams (as Pan) fared much better in the reviews, and I tend to agree: she gave a very good performance and sang well. She (well, all of the actors) adopted a British accent for the show. That wasn’t required and likely offended the purists who could see only Martin, but it didn’t bother me. She could have used a little more childish enthusiasm; however, overall, I thought she did well and I’d like to see her do more musicals.

Then there was Christopher Walken. Sigh. Yes, the man could dance. But Hook is not a dancer. The real problem was he couldn’t act or sing. His singing reminded me of Rex Harrison, who basically spoke the songs in My Fair Lady. His acting was — IMHO — wooden and stiff, and he didn’t bring the maniacal energy and character that Hook requires. The problem is — who could have done better? You need an actor who can dance, act, and sing; who is well known to the TV audience (not necessarily the stage audience); and who is available for all the rehearsals. Roger Rees? Nathan Lane? I’m not sure who else could have done this and have been the draw.

Stealing the show, as always, was Christian Borle as both the father and Smee. I think something was lost in not having Walken dual as the father, but I can understand the costuming changes (plus I’m not sure Walken could have provided the warmth Mr. Darling requires). Borle was an absolute smash in both roles and stole the scenes whenever he was in them. I also agree with the line I read on the Forbidden Musicals group: I never knew Borle had such guns!

Let’s look at the generations of Wendy together: Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling, Taylor Louderman as Wendy, and Minnie Driver as the narrator and adult Wendy. Louderman was wonderful as Wendy with a good characterization and a great singing voice (we also saw her in Bring It On in Los Angeles). O’Hara also gave a good performance as Mrs. Darling, and her duet with Wendy was delightful. Lastly, Driver did a fine narration job and was quite touching in the closing scene (especially when you realize what Peter was doing to her).

As Tiger Lily, Alanna Saunders (Gypsy) did good in her few songs, although her character came off as a bit wimpish in the final fighting scene. The claim was made that changes were made to the character to address Native American sensitivities (including Saunders’ casting, as she is part native american). She did very good on the reworked Ugg-a-Wug (True Blood Brothers), but the costuming of her tribe still seemed a bit stereotypical to me.

As for the remaining characters, they are mostly indistinguishable. I will note that the Lost Boys seemed to be too old to be Lost Boys, but that’s how theatre casting goes if you want strong dancers. Some of the supporting pirate crew had some few cute moments. According to Playbill, here are the remaining major credits: The Lost Boys are played by Ryan Steele (Curly), Jason Gotay (Tootles), Jacob Guzman (Twin 1), David Guzman (Twin 2), Chris McCarrell (Nibs), F. Michael Haynie (Slightly), Dyllon Burnside (Prickles), Daniel Quadrino (Bunting), Garett Hawe (Patches) and Michael Hartung (Sniffler). The Pirates are played by Bryce Ryness (Starkey), T. Oliver Reid (Oliver Shreeks/Islander), Michael Park (Cecco), Chris Sullivan (Noodler), Alan H. Green (Cookson), Austin Lesch (Bill Jukes), Gary Milner (The Vicar/Islander), Matt Wall (Skylights/Islander), Ryan Andes (Admiral Chrichton) and John Arthur Greene (Robert Mullins/Islander). Assuming multiple roles are Dominique Kelley, Marty Lawson, Charlie Williams, Michael Munday, CJ Tyson, Alex Wong, Andrew Pirozzi, James Brown III and Keenan Washington.

I also note that they made Nana a real dog. She/he/it worked and made her marks — I was particularly amused to see the dog trained to turn down the bed.

The Technology

Many of the reviews I read complained about the visibility of the wires. This didn’t bother me at all. Consider: When you are seeing a stage production, most people are typically far from the stage, making the wires less visible. With TV — and especially with HDTV and Ultra-HDTV — you’re up-close with the actors. Of course you’re going to see the wires. Suspend your disbelief, folks.

CGI was used in a number of places, and (to me) it didn’t work too well. The animation for Peter’s Shadow was problematic, especially when you could see it against Peter’s real Shadow. More importantly, the opening scene where he was dancing with the Shadow was marred by overuse of transition effects (the Shadow breaking apart into butterflies, for example). Tinkerbell worked better and was similar to laser effects (which I’ve also seen used), although again there were some transition problems. More problematic was the fact that the CGI overlay seemed to create odd screen problems, such as white squares at times. The electronic fairy dust worked OK.

Doing the production across sound stages, as opposed to a single proscenium stage, allowed for fancier sets. There were still problems. The Darling’s nursery was far too expansive, and I wasn’t crazy about the map effect on the floor in Neverland. The weird spatial relationship between the pirate ship and Neverland was made worse by all the different sets there — this actually hindered suspension of disbelief. Lastly, I noticed all the Christmas set dressing — trees, wreaths, etc. This is not specifically a Christmas story, other than Michael flying when he says “Christmas!”. So why they chose that dressing is beyond me.

TV likes to emphasize the risk of doing things live, forgetting that real theatre people do it live 8 times a week. As expected, it looks like a few props didn’t work, and there were times the actors were visibly out of breath in the scenes after a major dance.

The Music and Movement

I loved the new orchestrations and intend to pick up a copy of the soundtrack. I could not tell if the music was live and piped in or pre-recorded. I hope the former — it makes it more of a challenge.

The dancing was good, and it was clear they extended a number of scenes to add extended dance. The Pirates, in particular, danced much more than usual.

Overall Impression

Overall, I liked it. Walken’s performance was perhaps the weakest part of the show for me. Is this a keeper to watch again? Unclear. We don’t see NBC repeating last year’s Sound of Music; we don’t see ABC repeating their musical versions of Cinderella, Annie, or Music Man. I think people want to see their performances live. However, I do want to pick up the soundtrack, if only to have a copy of the added and changed songs.

The Usual Disclaimers

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

There’s no theatre on the books this weekend; I’m heading off to the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) in New Orleans. When I return, it will be “She Loves Me” at Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim in the afternoon, followed by an Austin Lounge Lizards concert at Boulevard Music in Culver City on 12/20. Right now, there is only one show booked for January 2015 – “An Evening with Groucho” at AJU with Frank Ferrente; additionally we’ll likely have the first show of the REP East (FB) season: “Avenue Q“.  Ticketed productions pick up in February, with “The Threepenny Opera” at A Noise Within (FB) on February 15, “The Road to Appomattox” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on February 28, the MRJ Man of the Year dinner on March 7, “Carrie: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) on March 14, a hold for “Drowsy Chaperone” at CSUN on the weekend of March 21, “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.