Friday, December 5, 2014

DASHing Peter Pan

I sit on the Executive Board of the Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theaters (EMACT). One of our services for our member groups is the Distinguished Awards and Special Honors (DASH) program. Productions entered in the program are reviewed by two trained consultants who score the performance in a number of technical and artistic categories, and at the end of the season, the highest-scoring productions in each category receive nominations and awards, and the best overall production of both a musical and a play is recognized. Although I am merely one of the program coordinators and not one of the adjudicators, I thought it might be interesting to review last night’s televised performance of Peter Pan Live! as if I were scoring a community theater production in the DASH program. I won’t assign actual scores, but I’ll comment on each category. (For anyone interested in seeing the actual ballot we use in the DASH program, which has comprehensive descriptions of the criteria within each category, please go to and scroll all the way to the bottom, then click on “DASH Scoring Spreadsheet – Musicals”.)

Set Design
The sets for this production were elaborate and numerous. Locations represented included the Darling home, the skies over London, and various locations in Neverland including Captain Hook’s pirate ship and the Lost Boys’ lair. There was a nice contrast between the realistic depiction of the Darlings’ elegant (and enormous!) Victorian mansion with its subdued colors and subtle but rich furnishings and the cartoonish, brightly-colored, stylized fantasy world of Neverland. The sets were physically located such that transitions from scene to scene (e.g., Pan and the children exiting the bedroom and flying over London) were smooth and seamless. A high point of the production.

Set Dressing
The set dressing was a seamless part of the design. The subtle richness of the “real world” scenes allowed for a startling reveal of the bright, slightly disproportionate “fantasy” scenes. There were a few misses in small details, such as the disgustingly filthy bathtub which appears in a scene where the actors are describing how they just scrubbed the entire place from top to bottom, but on the whole, set dressing was appropriate and contributed well to the overall “feel” of the piece.

Lighting Design
I’m sure it’s not an easy feat to light a live production for television cameras, but for the most part lighting was well done. There were a few scenes in the latter half of the production which were obviously meant to be ominously dark, but I couldn’t see the actors’ faces well, and in one case Peter Pan flew in and out of some overly-bright patches, which ruined the dim effect. The projected shadow work during Pan’s first scene was marvelous. I did miss the traditional flickering light for Tinker Bell, although the CGI effect was nicely done and well-synchronized with the actors’ reactions. There was a small error when Tinker Bell was poisoned and the shell she was hiding in lit up to show she was inside, but the light stayed on after the CGI Tink reappeared outside the shell. A minor quibble on a generally well done area.

Sound Design
For the most part, the sound was well balanced. There was one flying sequence where the vocals were slightly overpowered by the orchestra, but that was the exception rather than the rule. Given television technology, it is not surprising that all the sound effects were well done and appeared to come from the appropriate locations. Microphones all seemed to be up at the appropriate times and at correct levels.

Costume Design
Much like the sets, the contrast between the real world and the fantasy world was nicely done, with the London scenes in subdued colors and traditional styles and the Neverland scenes in bright colors and fantastical styles. I didn’t love some of the choices, however, such as costuming pairs of Lost Boys as twins (there is one actual set of twins in the script, and I felt their fun interplay was lost in the sea of twins) and the overly clean, very specific costume styles. These boys have been running through the woods without supervision for years – they’d be dirty and dressed eclectically in torn rags, not wearing clean, color-coordinated, perfectly pressed school uniforms. I also found the Indians’ costumes to be a bit overly revealing. Although it was apparent that they were wearing shorts under their loincloths and body paint, the apparent show of skin felt inappropriate for what is essentially a children’s show. Tiger Lily’s costume also showed some skin, but felt less revealing somehow. The crocodile costume was beautifully done, and although the bright purple and cobalt blue colors felt a bit jarring to me, it fit well with the fantastical styles established for the Neverland characters. The choice to make Peter’s costume similar to the traditional style but with some more contemporary or fantastical changes (such as mesh over the shoulders) worked for me. I think that Peter’s traditional hat might have made the actress look a bit more boyish, but the costume otherwise did a nice job of minimizing her figure and exposing her extremely slender and boyish arms, which was an effective choice.

Make-Up and Hair Design
One of the difficulties of televising a stage production is finding a makeup style that works for both long, full-stage shots and typical television closeups. Pan’s makeup made a heroic attempt to make a strikingly beautiful and feminine actress look boyish, and in long shots it somewhat succeeded, but in closeups the heavy orange pancake, blanked-out lips, and gray blush in contrast with unnaturally white teeth just looked strange and Goth. The pirates’ look was consistent and well done: seemingly inspired by the Jack Sparrow pirate trend, heavy eyeliner and bad teeth were the style of the day. They looked appropriately unwashed and grungy, unlike the Lost Boys who were once again pristine – I don’t believe for a minute that a bunch of unsupervised boys would have washed their faces within the last week. Hair styling and wigs were excellent for the most part, from Mrs. Darling’s modified Gibson girl to Wendy’s girlish pulled-back hair to Smee’s long golden locks. I would have liked to have seen a slightly more masculine style on Pan, and something much less neat (I doubt he owns or uses a comb). One other hair misstep was older Wendy’s blond wig in the final scene: Not only was the light blond too pale for the actress, it was also noticeably lighter than young Wendy’s hair, and since hair darkens with age, a darker blond would have worked much better.

Props Coordination
Considering the scale of the production, not a huge number of props were used, which seemed to me a very wise choice. The pirate swords were nicely done, although again a bit too clean and new-looking. The teacups for the tea party were exactly what I would expect Wendy to imagine. Small details like the lantern and shell where Tinker Bell is hidden were nicely done. The props in general were not particularly noticeable, which in this kind of production is a good thing. In a live televised production of this scale, the audience is watching for bobbled or dropped props, and I saw almost no problems with prop handling.

Stage Management
Bravo to the poor soul tasked with organizing the “backstage” of this massive production. Keeping everyone out of camera range (almost all the time, anyway), getting actors from location to location, managing camera angles and set relocations and getting the whole thing done within the 3-hour limit was a ridiculously difficult task that was extremely well done. Extra points for having to find enough burly stagehands to carry all the mermaids across the set once they were in costume! All cues and cuts seemed very well done, with the minor exception of one or two cuts to commercial that seemed slightly abrupt, particularly the two very brief between-commercial shots of Captain Hook holding a long high note, although that may have been driven by either the director or possibly the breath control of the actor.

In general, I found the performances were adequate to good. Sadly, the notable exception was Captain Hook. Christopher Walken seemed lifeless and unenergetic, completely out of keeping with a character who should be sweeping grandly across the deck of the ship, flinging his hat around and bellowing. I was expecting much more from him, and perhaps 20 or even 10 years ago he could have given us a marvelous Hook. But when the most interesting part of watching his performance is trying to figure out which object on the stage his lines are written on, it’s not a successful performance.

Moving on to the “adequate” category was Allison Williams as Peter Pan. Her voice is lovely, and she was playing the emotional arc of the character nicely. But she never convinced me that she was a little boy who had never had a mother in his life. Her accent (although nicely consistent) was too posh, her mannerisms too polite, her voice and movements too feminine for a wild little boy. I wanted a messier belt during “I Gotta Crow” and a little more childish desperation and panic as she begged the audience to clap and save Tinker Bell. On the positive side, her flying work was extremely well done. I was never worried that she’d crash or tip, and her acrobatics were smooth and natural. She had obviously spent plenty of time training to be at home on the wires, and it showed. I wish there had been a bit more focus on stage combat training, but that is a minor detail affecting only one short scene.

My favorite performances were from the three Darling children, each of whom lived up to their name. When I first saw Wendy, my immediate reaction was that she was much too old for the part. However, she took on the mannerisms, voice, and bearing of a young girl on the cusp of adulthood so beautifully that I forgot her age for the remainder of the show. I wish the director had taken advantage of her age to have the same actress play older Wendy, although there may not have been enough time between scenes to age her up believably. I look forward to seeing this young lady on the stage and screen again in the very near future. Hopefully this excellent performance will open doors for her career. Michael and John were the appropriate ages for their characters, and their enthusiasm and wonder throughout the show was an absolute joy to watch. Every time John came on the screen I couldn’t tear my eyes away for the marvelous expressions on his face. Both boys were completely in the moment whenever they were on screen. Very impressive and charming performances from both youngsters.

Another extremely well-done performance was given by Christian Borle as Smee and Mr. Darling. Traditionally, the role of Mr. Darling is paired with Captain Hook, and provides a fun contrast between the loving bluster of Darling and the angry, unloved bluster of Hook, and I did miss having that parallel, although I appreciated that Borle chose to tone down Darling’s bluster a bit, possibly for that very reason. But it was his performance as Smee that was so impressive. He is not the usual physical type for Smee – short, fat, and bald – so the choice to give him a very different physical look was the correct one. His Smee had long golden locks falling over a pirate headband and bare, beefy arms, with no sign of the traditional striped shirt or sandals. His facial expressions, with bugged out eyes and manic grin, stopped just short of mugging, and worked perfectly within the cartoonish world of Neverland. His dancing was an absolute highlight of not only his own performance but of the production as a whole, and he single-handedly saved what could have been a tragic rendition of “Hook’s Tango.” His performance is proof that veteran Broadway performers are the best choice for live televised stage productions.

Further proof of that rule was the luminous Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling. In just a few short scenes, O’Hara created the emotionally believable character of a loving, devoted mother whose heart is broken and then healed. Her barely controlled sadness as she sings “Distant Memory” with Wendy, her facial expressions on seeing her lost children reappear at the nursery window, and her affectionately amused smirk when she encourages Mr. Darling to agree to adopt the Lost Boys (“What’s twelve more?”) were more moving than the performances of other actors who had the entire show to create their arc. Such a beautiful performance.

The pirates and Lost Boys did a terrific job, as well. Although the Lost Boys were more like Lost Men (what happened to not growing older in Neverland? Apparently most of these “boys” were kidnapped at the age of 25), their dancing was an absolute pleasure, and they generally did a good job of moving and speaking like young teenagers, if not exactly small boys of 7 or 8. I wish their individual characters had been a bit more well-established, however. I never felt like any of them developed a unique personality. (I found it interesting that several of the dancers had been in the Broadway cast of Newsies, and one of my favorite parts of that production was how well every ensemble member developed their own unique character.) The pirates’ dancing was also a highlight of their performance, as was their just-short-of-over-the-top mugging. They were obviously having a wonderful time and their exuberance came across in every scene. I could absolutely believe that they were crazy pirates who would happily take on any wild adventure they came across without a second thought.
The Indians were also effective dancers, although much like the Lost Boys, I found them to be somewhat generic. It didn’t particularly bother me that all the Indians except Tiger Lily were male, but perhaps having mixed genders would have added some much-needed visual (and vocal) interest.

As a whole, with the exception of Hook, all the performances had the appropriate energy and were within a reasonable range of levels and styles. The actors listened and reacted, and they maintained their characters throughout. Some emotional arcs were more clearly played than others, but on the whole, I thought the cast did a nice, unified job and worked well together.

Another highlight of this production! The dances were energetic, athletic, and fun, with creative use of the space, dance styles that fit the characters and the music, and appropriate for the performers’ ability levels. “Hook’s Tango” was an excellent example of the latter – Borle’s Smee dancing frenetically and exuberantly against Hook’s bored stroll may not have been ideal, but it worked successfully with the limits of one actor and the strengths of the other. (I would have loved to have seen this number when Walken was in his dancing heyday. THAT would have been a TANGO!) Each of the three ensembles (pirates, Lost Boys, and Indians) had their own distinct dance styles, which helped to create and differentiate the groups of characters while also maintaining visual interest and variety for the audience.

Musical Direction
As expected in a professional, big budget production, the orchestra was fabulous. The orchestrations were lush and interesting, yet almost never overpowering the actors. They were so well-done that I wondered a few times if they were using a pre-recorded track (I’m not entirely sure there wasn’t a click track in a few places, but it was for the sake of the vocalists, not the instrumentalists). They kept right with the vocalists and tempos were proper and consistent throughout. A few minor errors from the trumpets at the end served only to remind me that these musicians had been playing perfectly -,and nearly constantly - for the past three hours.

For the most part, the soloists and ensemble vocals were also well done. I never felt that a singer was reaching for a note, although I would have loved a stronger belt from Pan in a few spots, and Tiger Lily seemed quite out of breath during “True Blood Brothers.”

Although perhaps not truly a part of “Musical Direction,” I did appreciate and enjoy the musical changes that were made from the original production. The choice of adding and adapting songs by the original composers kept a sense of stylistic consistency. It can be disconcerting to an audience familiar with the score of a production to have such significant changes made, but in this case the choices were effective and fit well into the overall production.

Much like stage management, direction of a production of this scale is not an easy job. On the whole, directorial choices were consistent, clear, effective, and true to the original script. One exception was the costume, hair, and makeup choices for the Lost Boys, which were inconsistent with their characters. But the main factor that came into play with the direction was the actual filming of the production, which I thought was quite well done. There were broad shots to show us the scale of the locations, closeups to catch the actors’ expressions at key moments, and no falling into the trap of zooming in on dancers so the impact of the choreography (not to mention a look at their impressive footwork!) is missed. One could object that having too many closeup shots loses the sense of being part of a live, on-stage production, but I didn’t feel like closeups ever took me out of the moment here. The scenes that called for showing scale or the broader visual scope of a scene were shown that way, and zooming in was used appropriately for more intimate moments.

On the whole, I thought this production was well-done, despite the miscasting of Walken (although I freely admit that he was one of the reasons that many non-theatre viewers tuned in, so it was a marketing success if not an artistic one). Fans of live theatre may have been somewhat disappointed, but to the target audience of television viewers who rarely attend live productions, it was well done enough that maybe a few of them might be inspired to see a live show. And it was certainly good enough – and watched enough – that we can all hope that another live production will be in the works again soon!

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