If it's any consolation, the new Annie movie looks way worse. Though punishingly overlong and occasionally flat-footed, NBC's Thursday broadcast of Peter Pan Live! was another honorably ambitious and sporadically enjoyable attempt to bring the thrill of musical theater into America's living rooms. It helps that Peter's fantastical fairy-tale trappings are an easier sell, even to the loaded-for-snark Twitter audience, than the leaden mechanics of last year's more uneven The Sound of Music Live! (But still, what was NBC thinking, flashing those "Tweet With Us!" banners?)
With its flashes of intermittent magic, including all that flying, even a lesser Peter Pan can't help but speak to the kid in all of us — especially, perhaps, to those from the generation that clapped along with Mary Martin back in the day. No one expected the Peter of Allison Williams to erase the memory of such a legend, and her sweetly competent but stubbornly bland performance set the tone for a colorful production that rarely lifted into the stratosphere. Hers was an overly refined and studied (including the British accent) Peter, lacking the spunk and spark of impudent spontaneity that should define this ageless and oh-so-theatrical character. Her crowing in the early going left a lot to be desired, but by the time she flew away with the Darling kids to "I'm Flying" and declared "I'll Never Grow Up" with her overripe tribe of Lost Boys-to-Men, I was on board. And compared to Carrie Underwood's stiff cipher of a Maria Von Trapp a year ago, Williams made the slow going mostly painless.
But really, would it kill them in the future to try casting an actual musical-comedy star in one of these leading roles? The shame of NBC's productions to date is watching genuine superstars like Laura Benanti (the Baroness in Sound of Music) and the luminous Kelli O'Hara, who brought lovely warmth to every moment as Mrs. Darling, so marginalized. (The musical highlights of the night included O'Hara's opening lullaby "Tender Shepherd"and, later, a duet with the gorgeous Wendy of Taylor Louderman on "Distant Melody.")
If Williams was at times forgettable, Christopher Walken's bizarre, somnambulant Captain Hook was anything but. Though not always for the right reasons. Lethargic in his throwaway line readings, lurching while mugging through his musical moments, he seemed to be channeling the ghost of a looped Bette Davis impersonator, more Captain Morgan's than Hook. Which made for some hilarious moments out of a Saturday Night Live parody, although this detached, nonchalant approach sapped much of the energy out of the pirate scenes — until the climactic Captain Hook's Waltz number came along to wake everyone up, even presumably Walken.
Actual theatrical panache was such a rare commodity that I could have sworn Peter's big swordfight with Hook was being conducted in slow motion. But even in those moments when I began to feel as droopy as Tinkerbell after the poison, I was never less than glad that NBC, these producers and designers and performers, were making such a serviceable effort. I hope and trust there will be a new musical airing a year from now, and should it aim a little higher with a more sophisticated property and a more seasoned cast, even better.