NBC returns to Neverland

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PETER PAN LIVE! -- Pictured: (l-r) John Allyn as Michael Darling, Allison Williams as Peter Pan, Jake Lucas as John Darling, Taylor Louderman as Wendy Darling

When NBC finds something it likes, the network prefers to establish a monopoly. Think Michael Landon series (Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, Highway to Heaven), or the Olympics, or the boy who would not grow up, Peter Pan.

This week's production with Allison Williams and Christopher Walken (8 p.m. Thursday on NBC10) will be the fifth time NBC has gone to J.M. Barrie's deeply enchanted well.

The first three times, Broadway musical star Mary Martin played the flying green imp. In 1955, the broadcast was used to entice viewers into sinking money into the latest fad: color TVs. You haven't seen Neverland until you've seen it in RCA Color!

The project proved so popular (65 million tuned in - an astounding record for that era) that NBC remounted it a year later and again in 1960 (although the younger characters had to be recast - the original actors had outgrown the Darling nursery).

In 1976, NBC packaged Peter Pan as a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation with Mia Farrow as Peter. It was an altogether curious interpretation, with a totally revised score (this one written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse) that was memorable mainly for Danny Kaye's campy performance as Captain Hook.

There have been innumerable renditions since Peter Pan was first brought to the screen as a silent film in 1924. My favorite remains Disney's animated version from 1953, mostly because it made Tinkerbell a star and because Hans Conried really nailed it as Hook. (The only flaw: Wendy's brother, John. What kind of toffer wears a top hat with a nightgown?)

We may at last be approaching an expiration date for the evergreen Peter. Last season, the fairy-tale series Once Upon a Time presented him as a villain. And on the big screen this summer, we'll get an origins story for the character in Pan, with Hugh Jackman. Once Hollywood starts playing fast and loose with your legend, the end is near.

But first we have to get through this week's NBC knockoff, which was announced shortly after the network struck ratings gold last December with its The Sound of Music special starring the odd pairing of Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer.

I can't tell you if Peter Pan LIVE! will be good (although in clips, Williams' singing voice sounds much better than expected). The broadcast is literally critic-proof. There will be no reviews because the key word in the title is LIVE!

To which I must ask, WHY?

I know the arguments: Theater fans say the immediacy of the performance, seeing it in real time, is what makes the stage experience magical. NBC can promote it as "a special event." And it's a tribute to Mary Martin's televised accomplishments.

None of which makes sense to me. The prime-time shows you watch every night are meticulously crafted. It can take an entire morning to shoot a scene that may take up five seconds of airtime. And then there are the layers upon layers of polish that go on in postproduction.

Why sacrifice all the tools of modern visual storytelling to go live? What do you gain? It's like insisting on hand-line fishing when you're sitting in a high-tech bass boat surrounded by expensive gear.

Yes, The Sound of Music Live brought in an audience of 18.6 million viewers, but I would argue that had more to do with stunt casting and nostalgia appeal than it did with the no-net format.

What NBC's big gamble really accomplished was to take a grand musical and make it look as stiff and chintzy as a dinner theater production. Cardboard Alps? No thanks, Rolfe.

The one thing Peter Pan LIVE! is guaranteed to do is provide Williams with a post-Girls career. After all, former gymnast Cathy Rigby flew around in the rafters as Peter for more than 30 years. Once you put on the green tights, you never lack for work.

So while Thursday's show strikes me more as a magic trick than a special event, I will be watching. But mostly to post snarky tweets. LIVE! And because Michael Landon would want me to.

 


TV

"Peter Pan LIVE!"

8 p.m. Thursday on NBC10


dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4875 @daveondemand_tv