Rebooting a tradition that began nearly 60 years ago, NBC on Thursday broadcast a live version of "Peter Pan" from Bethpage's Grumman Studios that included -- yes -- flying, along with some familiar songs, sung by some very familiar names.
In green vest and black tights, Allison Williams -- daughter of "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams, and a star of HBO's "Girls" -- almost immediately addressed the two outstanding questions that some viewers may have had before going in: Could she sing and dance? (Make that three -- could she fly?) As Peter, the boy who never grows old, and as performed by a 26-year-old actress who has said in interviews that she dreamed of playing this role since age 3, the answers were yes . . . and yes. (And one more yes.)
NBC and producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, along with director Rob Ashford, also immediately tackled issues that had troubled NBC's live production of "Sound of Music" from these stages a year ago. This production embraced this vast space, with a flyover view of London, from multiple camera positions, followed in later acts by an elaborate ready-for-Broadway Jerome Robbins-choreographed stage numbers featuring Christopher Walken's Captain Hook and his pirate crew in Neverland. The old and racially insensitive "Ugg a Wugg" was ditched, or at least reworded ("True Blood Brothers") while the rest of the classics appeared to largely remain intact.
Thursday's version was based on the Jerome Robbins stage version from 1954, with songs by Carolyn Leigh and Moose Charlap (also Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green), which starred Mary Martin in the title role and was telecast live on NBC a year later, with a handful of live telecasts in subsequent years. (By the way, "based on" are the key words here -- Ashford, a Tony-winning choreographer, certainly added many of his own touches and changes.)
So-called "hate-watchers" flooded Twitter with snark during last year's telecast, but they seemed largely absent Thursday night, possibly for some obvious reasons.
Besides Williams' competence, superior production values, good singing, and special effects deployed to render Tinkerbell a magical, floating miniature light saber, there was the famed flying, with Williams' Pan and the Darling children soaring a couple of dozen feet above the stage during "Peter Pan's" legendary showstopper, "I'm Flying." (Martin pioneered the flying on the first NBC production.)
Nothing to hate there, and -- actually -- something even to love.
If Williams wasn't exactly a "revelation," she was still a revelation, as the androgynous boy-girl with just the slightest hint of melancholy. The role's a tough one, especially when comparisons are laid down -- particularly to Cathy Rigby who captured what probably needed to be captured first and foremost, which is a certain lightness of foot and athleticism.
But Williams isn't a gold-medal-winning Olympics gymnast, and her voice -- while clear and strong -- never quite managed to convey the true emotional force of Styne's "Never Never Land." That Act 1 standard sets the table for everything -- loss, love, longing, and that sense that somewhere, over the rainbow, childhood is a permanent and joyful state of being. (Based on J.M. Barrie's play, the story in part was inspired by the death of his brother at age 14 in a skating accident.)
But ... so what. She did a lovely version of the other Styne gem, "Distant Melody," and kept her head, and her pitch, during "I'm Flying." In fact, the flying scenes -- with visible wires courtesy of Flying by Foy -- were nicely choreographed, while Williams managed to stick her landings. Imagine: Just one misplaced foot and a fake palm tree and half the set would have come tumbling down.
Meanwhile, Walken's Captain Hook ...
Recognizing that whether one liked or disliked his interpretation is a matter of taste -- and quite clearly it was an interpretation that John Waters would have approved -- this mostly worked, too. As the louche, sexually ambiguous pirate-king who swish-buckled his way through the famed "Tarantella" and every other dance number, Walken came to do camp and succeeded. And what a voice: When he aimed for his high C's, he bellowed and wailed, approximating a surprisingly accurate burlesque of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion. It was a funny and often endearing performance, and sharpened the contrast with Peter/Williams' wide-eyed earnestness.
The overall production -- good, mostly efficient, and certainly not perfect. Yes, hatewatchers will hate, and you don't have to go far into the Web right now to find what they hated -- too flat, too long, too dull, and the commercial breaks were weird (Walmart, Tinker Bell, Melissa Joan Hart, endless, scheesh).
But if the ads were the biggest issue, then ... mission accomplished, NBC.