Peter Pan Live! (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Peter Pan Live! (2014)

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Wendy Darling sits on the uncertain line between being a child and growing into an adult.  She longs for the responsibility, but still loves playing games.  One night a mysterious boy named Peter Pan flies into the Darling household and presents an offer to Wendy and her siblings - join him in Neverland, and they'll never grow up.  Peter Pan Live! is the latest version of the classic story by J.M. Barrie.  Rob Ashford and Glenn Weiss direct from a teleplay written by Irene Mecchi.

Get the jazz hands out boysI didn't think anything would deter my delight during the opening moments of Peter Pan Live!  The camera swooped over a wonderful set of tiny houses and buildings that functioned as a stand-in for England.  We watched through the windows of one sturdy house as Wendy (Taylor Louderman) talks to her mother (Kelli O'Hara) about the excitement of growing up.  In bursts Mr. Darling (Christian Borle) attempting to put on a serious face for his family before joining in on some jokes and garbles his words to the delight of his household.

I thrilled at the illusion and realized the creative energies behind Peter Pan Live! were embracing the fantastic spirit of the original story.  The performances were at that perfect point between hysterical overacting and sturdy emotional delivery.  Colorful sets balanced the need to present information about this fantastical world in a way that still clearly communicates where we are in the story.  Those wonderful instruments resounded through the stage as Wendy looked dreamily off into the sky.  Everything was perfect.


Perfection never lasts for long.

Then Peter Pan shows up and my excitement faded fast.  It would return in fits and spurts throughout the rest of the production, but my zest for this beautiful world was almost tanked by Allison Williams' performance in the titular role.  Strange that the star of the show would have such a dampening effect, but that's what happens when performers are cast more for their aesthetics and less for their ability to fit into the world that their performance needs to inhabit.  Based on some other elements of the production there is evidence Williams' is not entirely to blame, but it's a shame she could not rise to the occasion.

To understand why her performance is so off-putting look at the opening scenes between her and Taylor Louderman.  Williams plays Pan with a sort of subdued curiosity that escalates into excitement that is energetic but not frenetic.  Basically, Williams is playing Pan as though she were in more of a cinematic setting where a certain degree of naturalism is usually required.  Compare that to Louderman as Wendy, who veers wildly between wide-eyed wonder at the flying boy and energetic fretting about everyone's safety.  Louderman's performance completely gives into the illusion while Williams' keeps her theatrical impulses at a distance.  One builds the illusion, the other highlights it.

The stunt cast du jour belongs to Christopher Walken, whose bewildering performance is simultaneously great and awful.  Walken often feels like he belongs, dresses Captain Hook like an aging queen who settled into mere flamboyant diversions, and delivers his lines so inconsistently that it's impossible to get a bead on what Hook is feeling.  It's bizarre listening to Walken drop into a disaffected deadpan one second and then in the same line switch to a theatrical energy that suits the production spectacularly.  He whispers out his lines when supposedly enraged by Peter Pan, but gleefully laughs when throwing a teddy bear away.  Musical theater doesn't exactly thrive on ambiguity and Walken's performance often adds a layer of mystery that's frequently overwhelmed by the too-loud sound design.

His inconsistent performance becomes glaringly obvious when Walken is with Christian Borle, who is doing double-duty as Mr. Darling and Smee.  Borle is the standout performer of the show and walks away handily with every scene he's in.  He plays Smee with this mix of anxiety, macho strength, and overt infatuation with the fey Hook.  Watching Borle as he switches from poses that emphasize his toned arms to anxiously throwing sideways glances while dancing with Hook is perpetually charming.  If I had my druthers the production would veer off to stay with him and the leggy, leather pants wearing, instrument playing, high energy pirate ensemble instead of including the Lost Boys or Tiger Lily's tribe.

The crocodile is my favorite touch.

In a production overwhelming with colorful delights the crocodile was a standout.

I still question what these two groups really add to the story, especially as presented here.  Pan is the catalyst for conflict and the Lost Boys are a poor Greek chorus for the action.  The dance scenes Tiger Lily's tribe contorting around the Lost Boys are physically impressive but still questionable in their presentation.  Is there any reason, in 2014, for an American television company to propagate a distorted view of Native Americans based on the incorrect images put forth by a Scottish author over 100 years ago?  It's not like the new song, which is basically a sustained musical grunting session, adds much to the experience.

Ultimately, my quibbles are minor.  After all, how could I dislike a production that has a man crawling around on his hands and knees in a psychedelic crocodile suit as he torments Hook?  With just a slight tilt of the camera a map of the world becomes a colorful space for weird foliage where people sing with their hearts and fight with exaggerated motions.  I long for this kind of emotion, and Peter Pan Live! delivers the warm goods.

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Tail - Peter Pan Live!Peter Pan Live! (2014)

Directed by Rob Ashford and Glenn Weiss.
Teleplay written by Irene Mecchi.
Starring Allison Williams, Taylor Louderman, Christopher Walken, and Christian Borle.

Posted by Andrew

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