Random Thoughts on Peter Pan Live!

Posted on December 05, 2014

peterpan2Allison Williams and Christopher Walken in NBC’s “Peter Pan Live!”


We had no plans to do any sort of review this morning because three straight hours of live-tweeting should serve as review enough, and also because something like this is so different from the rest of what you can find on television that it’s difficult to really apply any sort of criteria to it. Do you review it as a television show or as a live play? Because it never really settles into either form completely. There’s no live audience and too many camera effects and commercial breaks to effectively judge it on the merits as a live play. On the other hand, there’s a certain level of forgiveness one is expected to apply to any sort of roughness in the final product, which makes it unlike normal TV reviews, which expect and demand a high level of polish.

What really kind of set us off and made us decide to write this at the last minute was the surprise and then later, the annoyance we felt when we woke up to a bunch of TV critics struggling mightily to praise this effort while at the same time preemptively lashing out at anyone who would dare criticize it. It was bad enough when portions of the entertainment media seemed to buy into the cast and producers’ rather desperate last-minute pleading that everyone be nice on twitter, but when critics start using the term “haters” derisively (and worse, unironically) … well. Hold my gold, girl.

Look, this was bad. We shouldn’t have to say this at the start of a review, but believe it or not, despite our three-hour twitter snarkfest on the topic, we really wanted to be entertained. We wanted to see Christopher Walken wow us all and we even secretly kind of hoped that Allison Williams would blow any criticism or charges of nepotism out of the water with some sort of astonishing breakthrough performance. And while she certainly gave it her all and he definitely managed to supply most of the laughs of the night, it was a limp, sometimes boring, and occasionally amateurish production.

This should be the point at which the defenders implore us to remember that this is a show for children and you have to suspend your disbelief. We agree with that on principle, but this production made some serious errors that actively worked against the audience buying into the story, not least of which were some of the casting choices.

Let’s start with Christopher Walken. All of twitter laughed as one at the sight of him all but rolling his eyes through this production, but rather than come across as insouciant, by the end of the night, it was obvious that he simply wasn’t up to the task of a three-hour musical production. He was listless, missed a lot of his cues, stepped on people’s lines and we’re pretty sure forgot whole portions of his dialogue. And his makeup looked like it was applied by a bored drag queen. Worse, there were parts where he was clearly lip-synching and doing a bad job of matching the track.

In fact, as an aside, we’re pretty surprised to see how little outrage or criticism arose from the fact that the actors were singing along to pre-recorded tracks. You’d think for all the hoopla about this being a live performance, there’d be a little bit of a scandal about that.

As for Allison, she has a passably decent voice. She was, for the most part, energetic when the scene needed her to be. But you never lost sight of how much and how hard she was working all throughout the play. Not one aspect of her performance felt natural or spontaneous (and that latter quality should really infuse the character). And while this has more to do with the traditions of the production rather than being her fault, in 2014 it’s asking a lot of the audience to pretend that a clearly grown woman is supposed to be a prepubescent boy. There’s nothing remotely masculine about Allison Williams. There is not even anything about her that one could characterize as “child-like.” Never once throughout the entire story did we lose sight of the fact that a grown woman was pretending to be a little boy. In this day and age, it’s kind of hard not to see that as a little creepy; especially when the entire story hinges on this grown woman breaking into a bedroom full of children in the middle of the night and essentially abducting them.

And speaking of creepy, we have absolutely no idea why the production decided to cast a bunch of muscular, good-looking, clearly adult men as the Lost Boys. Not only was it jarring to see all these flamboyant chorus boys standing next to actual little boys and pretending to be the same age as them, but it was creepy as hell the way they all surrounded Wendy and started calling her “Mother” at every turn. It also made no sense why all of these strapping men would look up to the scrawny, sylph-like Peter Pan as their protector. So with an obviously adult female as Peter and a bunch of obviously adult men as the Lost Boys, the resulting undertones were decidedly sexual in nature. The Wendy and Peter relationship turned into a “Boys Don’t Cry” style transgender romance and every time the Lost Boys tossed the two actual little boys in the cast around, we got disturbing reminders of Michael Jackson’s slumber parties.

And before you call us creeps and assholes for saying this, all they had to do was cast relatively age and gender-appropriate kids in the parts to make the production work. In 2014, there’s no reason why Peter Pan has to be played by a woman (outside of a long, meaningless and archaic tradition) and there’s certainly no reason why the Lost Boys need to be a bunch of adult chorus boys. There are plenty of kids with Broadway-level talent and experience out there. Hell, there are actual boy bands out there who could have played the parts.

Which brings us to our next point: if you’re being true to the original story, then you’re dealing in 19th Century thinking about children and gender. At one point, Tom turned to Lorenzo and said, “You know? I’m not sure, if I had kids, that I’d want them watching this.” The way all the “boys” pressure Wendy into the role of surrogate mother, and the ways in which she defines that as “telling everyone what to do” are kind of fucked up. And then at the end, the adult Wendy sends her daughter off with  Peter in the hopes that the women in her family will always get a chance to run away with him? That is freaking WEIRD. Between the weird gender politics, the casual racism, and the high definition helpfully showing off every wire and every instance of Lost Boy bulge, we couldn’t help thinking that this is one children’s story that either needed a serious overhaul for modern sensibilities or to be relegated to the dustbin of community theater productions. A notable attempt all around, but it was doomed from the start, as far as we can see. There’s a difference between “old-fashioned entertainment” and “offensive minstrel shows” and this falls somewhere in the middle.



[Photo Credit: NBC]

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