Friday, December 5, 2014

Peter Pan Live! (NBC/Universal/Sony, December 4, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched last night’s much-ballyhooed live telecast of Peter Pan on NBC. A co-production of Universal (NBC’s affiliate under the Comcast octopus) and Sony, this was an acceptable run-through of the classic 1954 musical version, which took a much cuter and sweeter “take” on the material than I suspect its creator, Sir James M. Barrie, had in mind. Peter Pan the character first appeared briefly in a novel called The Little White Bird, written by Barrie for an adult audience (Barrie was primarily a writer of what would now be called “rom-coms,” short for “romantic comedies,” set in the England of his own time, but his stage works run the gamut from rom-coms to out-and-out fantasies to historical dramas like The Boy David — the Biblical one). In 1904 Barrie wrote an entire play called Peter Pan: Or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and its first production in London was a smash hit. That one starred Nina Boucicault, daughter of playwright Dion Boucicault, in the title role and established the tradition of casting Peter as what would in opera be called a “trouser role” — a male character played by a woman in drag. (British critic Gareth Hughes sniffed in the 1920’s, “Why must it always be a peterless Pan?”) In 1908 Barrie’s publisher extracted the four chapters about Peter Pan from The Little White Bird and printed them separately, and in 1911 Barrie wrote an entire novelization of the play — which he kept revising until he authorized a final published version in 1928. I’ve never read Barrie’s original novel or play, nor have I seen it produced (it almost never is done in its original form), but I have seen the 1924 silent film, made by Paramount, directed by Herbert Brenon (a largely forgotten director of the silent era whose reputation has been handicapped by the loss of many of his films, including the 1926 version of The Great Gatsby) and starring Betty Bronson as Peter, Mary Brian as Wendy, Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily the Indian and the great silent-era villain Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook.

In fact I’ve seen it twice, once on the Kino DVD with the soundtrack provided by the Kino company and again at the Organ Pavilion with Dennis James providing a live musical accompaniment, and I love the 1924 version; I’ve called it “deeper and richer than the more recent adaptations, full of complex emotions and overlaid with a hint (though no more than a hint!) of burgeoning sexual attraction between Peter and Wendy.” Alas, since that version (supervised by Barrie himself, who had star approval and kept Paramount waiting for nine months while he disapproved of every actress they proposed for the lead until they showed him the test of 19-year-old Betty Bronson), virtually all the adaptations since have sentimentalized the material and moved it away from real emotions, emphasizing the cutesy aspects of the material. Walt Disney put out an animated version in 1953 (Peter was voiced by child actor Bobby Driscoll, one of the few times it has been a petered Pan) and the next year a Broadway musical version came out starring Mary Martin, who’d already proven in the “Honey Bun” number of South Pacific five years earlier that she could cross-dress convincingly and was petite enough that she could be flown easily — since part of Barrie’s fantasy requires that Peter and the Darling children (Wendy, the female lead, and her brothers Michael and John), take a header out the Darlings’ second-story window and fly to Never Never Land, where the bulk of the story takes place. The musical was written by Mark “Moose” Charlap with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, though when that version flopped in previews additional songs were added by composer Jule Styne and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with Martin as Peter and the marvelous British actor Cyril Ritchard (the murder victim in Hitchcock’s Blackmail in 1929) as Captain Hook. (An earlier Broadway production from 1950 wasn’t a musical, though Leonard Bernstein provided incidental music, and starred Jean Arthur as Peter and Boris Karloff — who would seem the perfect actor for the role — as Hook.) The Martin version was telecast live three times — in 1955, 1956 and 1960 — and the 1960 version was preserved on videotape and reissued several times, once in 1973 and again in the 1990’s when it was discovered on two-inch tape (no player then existed that could run a two-inch tape; a non-working model of a two-inch videotape player was found in a Houston museum of TV history and parts had to be hand-machined to get it in working order so the tape could be played and transferred to modern storage media).

The show has been periodically revived “live” with Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby and anyone else they can find who can sing, dance and is petite enough to look credibly boyish and be accommodated by the assembly of ropes, cables and harnesses needed to “fly” on stage, and it was the basis for this version, though Adolph Green’s daughter Amanda was brought in to provide three additional songs (which, quite frankly, added little). This time around Peter was played by Allison Williams — she didn’t really look all that masculine (more like a 1920’s flapper wearing a grass skirt) but she sang and moved well — with Taylor Louderman as Wendy, Alanna Saunders in a Catwoman-esque costume as Tiger Lily (whose band, in an unnecessary bow to political correctness, was changed from “Indians” to “Islanders” and made to look Polynesian instead of Native American; also, a new song called “True Blood Brothers” replaced “Ugg-a-Wugg,” the original bonding song between Peter Pan and Tiger Lily. This misbegotten example of political correctness run riot actually got a thank-you from one Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. These people want all entertainment to be sanitized and have all the fun bleached out of it) and Christopher Walken as Hook. Walken’s presence was the biggest element ballyhooed — and let’s face it, it’s not every day that an Academy Award-winning actor with a serious reputation sets foot on a TV soundstage to replicate a comic-villain role in a deliberately campy Broadway musical. Walken was actually one of the show’s biggest disappointments; he seems as if he got his whole idea of how to play a pirate (and even what to look like as one) from Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and though the script feints at homoerotic attractions between Hook and his crew (particularly his sidekick Smee, played by Christian Borle, who also doubles as the stuffed-shirt father of Wendy and her two brothers), he’s hardly as daring as Cyril Ritchard, who played Hook as an all-out screaming queen. (That went over my head when I saw the Mary Martin TV show in 1960, when I was seven, and even in 1973, but when the piece was revived in 1990 it seemed almost too obvious.)

Indeed, the weakest part of this Peter Pan was it conveyed almost no sense of terror; even the villainy had an element of “Don’t worry, we’re only kidding” about this, and frankly I’d have liked to see Hook played as an all-out villain to cut the cutesiness of the rest of the tale, the way Ernest Torrence played him in the 1922 film — and Margaret Hamilton played the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz, a story which pre-dates Peter Pan by a few years and is far more interesting, especially since it’s a classic fantasy quest-narrative and its adapters embraced the coming-of-age aspects of the original just about everyone who’s taken on Peter Pan since Barrie has run away from. Ironically, the most genuinely moving parts of the story as presented in the NBC telecast of the 1954 musical of Barrie’s 1904 play are the ones dealing with the Darling parents’ sense of loss over their children (later Barrie wrote a fascinating fantasy called Mary Rose — about a young girl who disappears for weeks or even years; it’s not clear what’s happened to her in the meantime, but when she comes back to our world she hasn’t aged at all no matter how much time has passed in the normal sphere — which when I read it seemed to have been his way of answering the question, “But what about the parents of the Lost Boys? What did they go through?” Mary Rose also fascinated Alfred Hitchcock, who for decades wanted to film it and got as far as a preliminary script written with Jay Presson Allen, who wrote Marnie, but never got to make it) and the final scene, based on an addition to the original play Barrie called “An Afterthought,” in which Wendy is seen as an adult (played here by Minnie Driver), married with a daughter of her own, when Peter Pan finally fulfills his promise to her to return and takes Wendy’s daughter on her own Never Never Land adventure.

It also didn’t help that the spirit of Julie Andrews hung so heavily over this enterprise; all three of the female principals — Allison Williams, Taylor Louderman and Kelli O’Hara as the Darling kids’ mother — seem to have adopted her clear diction and somewhat exaggerated enunciation as their model for how to sound convincingly “British” when they sang. (Peter Pan Live! was a follow-up to NBC’s previous “live” take on The Sound of Music, which got rotten reviews, mainly aimed at the star, Carrie Underwood, though all they could really fault her for was not being Julie Andrews.) And whereas the Sound of Music telecast had been a traditional TV adaptation of a live play, shot with best-seat-in-the-house vistas from three cameras, Peter Pan Live! roamed throughout the studio and moved about through the sets representing the various vistas — the Darlings’ house back in London and the locales of Never Never Land, from the beach on which Peter and the Darling kids land to the “Islander” encampment, the Lost Boys’ secret underground hideout (which seemed to have been inspired by the one for the villainous Cabinet ministers plotting to depose President W. C. Fields in the 1932 Million Dollar Legs) and the pirate ship to which Hook takes the kidnapped Lost Boys and threatens to make them walk the plank … Not all this was to the good; though it was fun to see a Busby Berkeley-like overhead dance formation with men (though that had already been done in the Village People’s 1980 movie Can’t Stop the Music!), it was not fun that the ever-changing camera angles made it impossible for the lighting people to conceal the ropes and cables suspending the cast members as they “flew.” Even on our old, non-digital, low-definition TV the cords tying these people to normal gravity were just too obvious.

Where Peter Pan scored was the excellence of the dancing — it’s nice to know all those kids taking tap will have some chance at a professional showcase for their skills — indeed, Christopher Walken’s halting steps in rhythm looked even worse by comparison to the quality of the fully professional (and amazingly good) chorus dancing behind him — and also the literally colorful settings; this was one modern production that actually offered colors other than dank green and dirty brown! As far as the whole thing was concerned, let’s just say that this Peter Pan was fun, but not as much fun as it could have been if it hadn’t been played so relentlessly for cuteness — the whole moving subplot of both Peter and Wendy feeling sexual awakenings in their attraction to each other, a relationship that can’t be consummated because Peter refuses to grow up and Wendy ultimately wants a home and family much like the one her parents have, was delicately but brilliantly communicated in the 1924 film but is almost totally ignored here. James M. Barrie wrote a charming fairy tale (indeed, when his plays started falling off in popularity Dorothy Parker attributed it to audiences getting tired of works whose virtually only audience appeal was charm) but it had darker resonances — some of which he may not have intended — and in each new adaptation the cutesy-poo stuff has been emphasized more and more and the darker elements relegated to the cutting-room (or the steno-pool) floor.