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'Peter Pan Live!' to broadcast from Long Island on NBC, starring Allison Williams and Christopher Walken

Allison Williams as Peter Pan and Christopher Walken

Allison Williams as Peter Pan and Christopher Walken as Captain Hook in rehearsal for NBC's "Peter Pan Live!" Credit: NBC / Nino Munoz

The name "Foy" means nothing to the serious TV viewer. But the serious theatergoer? Another story altogether. There's magic in those three letters -- flying magic of the sort that made productions as diverse as "The Lion King" and "Angels in America" become fully alive and quite literally airborne in parts, too.

Flying by Foy, founded over half a century ago by Peter Foy -- a former child actor in England who died in 2005 -- is Broadway's premiere theatrical "flying service," which hoists actors and occasionally even props far above the stage.

And -- one might add without fear of contradiction -- it's also among the real stars of NBC's "Peter Pan Live!" to take the stage Thursday at 8 p.m. at Bethpage's Grumman Studios. The production stars Allison Williams as Peter, along with Christopher Walken as Captain Hook, Kelli O'Hara as Mrs. Darling, Christian Borle as her husband, George (as well as Mr. Smee), and relative newcomer Taylor Louderman as Wendy.

Pay close attention early on when Williams' Peter Pan says, "Wendy, when you're sleeping in your silly bed, you could be flying about with me saying funny things to the stars..."

That's the cue to "I'm Flying," the Moose Charlap-Carolyn Leigh classic that announces one of those singular Broadway moments, as Peter suddenly shoots to the rafters while an audience holds its collective breath -- as they have for 60 years at the Winter Garden (1954), Lunt-Fontaine ('79), Minskoff ('91), Marquis ('98) and George Gershwin ('99).

"We are going to see her fly, or rather he's going to fly, as the case may be. And we will be seeing the Darlings fly, too," said Neil Meron -- the other half of the Meron and Craig Zadan team behind "Live!" -- in a recent phone interview. (He's referring to Wendy and her two brothers, John and Michael, who famously soared with Peter in various other versions.)

"It is a bit daunting to think about hoisting these four people up there and have them fly, but it's also part of the fun of the production," Meron added, somewhat puckishly. "They will be flying without a net, and will all be rigged by Flying by Foy -- which did not do 'Spider-Man.'"

("Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which closed in January, was plagued with flying accidents during the early part of its run.)

Foy's marvelous flying contraptions -- a collection of pulleys, weights and high-tech wizardry largely invisible to viewers -- actually originated with Mary Martin's first "Pan" production at the Winter Garden in 1954. Therefore, one might argue that flying is to Peter what a hook and snarl are to the Captain -- all part of the essential theatrical pageantry of this Broadway standard.

Then again, one also might argue otherwise, especially when as many as 20 million people will be watching and the daughter of Brian Williams, anchor of "NBC Nightly News," is the one dangling 40 feet over a very hard soundstage on Long Island.

Nevertheless, there is a sense at "Live!" that history and network tradition must be served. Mary Martin's "Peter Pan" aired live on NBC nearly 60 years ago, and yes, Martin was indeed airborne, doubtless an eye-popping thrill to TV viewers accustomed to the earthbound stars of "I Love Lucy" and "My Little Margie."

Moreover, there's a go-for-broke spirit this time, too. Stung by mostly negative reviews for 2013's live "Sound of Music" and a nagging suspicion that perhaps those reviews weren't entirely wrong, NBC intends to put a sock in the naysayers this time around. The cast, of course, is nearly stunning -- at least on paper. Tony Award winner O'Hara is one of musical theater's incandescent talents. Walken is a Hollywood legend.

And while Williams, best known as Marnie Michaels on "Girls," occasionally performs in cheesy videos on the HBO series -- in a running and amusing joke -- the actress who plays her can hold a note and definitely knows how to act. Says Meron, "She's fantastic, and she has literally said she was born to play this role. She's obsessed with this, and she's fearless."

Of "Sound of Music Live!" detractors, he says, "The vast majority who watched it enjoyed it, but there's always a focus on the people that are trying to outwit themselves and each other in their hate.

"If you look at the entire history of 'Sound of Music,' from Mary Martin on, those [Broadway] productions never got good reviews, but it's always been wildly popular."

About 18 million watched the live telecast of "Sound of Music Live!" in December, or 44 million viewers when DVR and other forms of playback viewing were factored in, according to NBC.

Meron does concede that some improvements needed to be made, and have been.

"What we learned [from 'The Sound of Music,' also staged at Grumman] was to be a little more adventurous with the theatricality of the presentation," he says.

That certainly means flying, but it also means substantial corrections in sound quality (which bedeviled "Sound of Music"), scene transitions and staging. The few promotions NBC has released reveal -- at least in snapshot -- a vibrant, colorful production with a kinetic vibe. Actors aren't just standing around singing at each other, but instead swell across a large space in elaborate choreographed sequences with other actors and dancers.

But even with flying, "Peter Pan" has its own unique set of challenges.

For instance, there's "Tink" -- Tinkerbell -- usually a flash of light, or some other ethereal or sonic presence on the stage. (Martin's Tink was a xylophone.)

There's that epic trip to Neverland, "a magic island on whose shores children are forever at play," as well as its mythic denizens, like waltzing trees.

Then, there are the modern political realities. When Martin's "Pan" first aired on NBC's "Producers' Showcase" on March 7, 1955 -- there were subsequent telecasts in 1956 and 1960 -- a record 65 million viewers saw Martin and Sondra Lee, as Tiger Lily, sing "Ugg-a-Wugg."

Its lyrics went: "Beat on a drum / And I will come / And I will come and save the brave noble redskin / Ugg-a-wugg / Ugg-a-wugg ..."

But the racist lyrics of "Ugg-a-Wugg" are gone Thursday. Lyricist Amanda Green -- daughter of Adolph Green, who with his partner, Betty Comden, also produced songs for the original musical -- has written new lyrics for the song, now called "True Blood Brothers."

At least fans of the original should still be able to hum the tune.

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