PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 29-Dec. 5: Critics Weigh In On "Peter Pan Live!" and Sondheim Returns to the Big Screen

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Nov. 29-Dec. 5: Critics Weigh In On "Peter Pan Live!" and Sondheim Returns to the Big Screen
 
As was the case last year at this time, the big theatre story of the week was a television show.

"Peter Pan Live!" star Allison Williams
"Peter Pan Live!" star Allison Williams Photo by Nino Munoz/NBC

Last year it was NBC’s shoot-the-moon decision to air a live performance of The Sound of Music, starring Carrie Underwood as Maria. The production has its detractors, but it was a unexpected ratings smash, leading NBC and producer Neil Meron and Craig Zadan to quickly announce a new live musical for 2014.

Again, Meron and Zadan chose a family-friendly, won’t-offend-anybody title — Peter Pan. And, again, they made an unorthodox casting choice for the lead: Allison Williams, who plays one of the walking-disaster navel-gazers featured the Lena Dunham series “Girls.” Drafted alongside her was Christopher Walken as Captain Hook. The one-night-only event, which boasted newly-added songs to show's classic score, aired at 8 PM EST Dec. 4.

The reviews poured out within hours of the three-hour broadcast. There were no raves, and there were plenty of quibbles. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Williams did not come in for the drubbing that Underwood did. On the whole, critics were pleasantly impressed with the actress.

"If there were problems in 'Peter Pan Live!' — and there were —Williams had precious little to do with them," wrote Hollywood Reporter.

"Allison Williams ruined hate-watching," quipped the New York Times. "It turns out this little-known 26-year-old star of “Girls” has a lovely singing voice — as smooth as double-churn caramel ice cream. Ms. Williams convincingly pulled off a British accent and was, all in all, a confident, lively and suitably impudent Peter Pan." Walken, too, was given a pass. "It was a night where Williams and Walken," wrote Hollywood Reporter, "at disparate ends of the live performance, gave a lot respectfully to their roles and to the success of the night. It wasn't flawless (and if you factor in the moments when Walken seemed to be particularly awash in the lights, maybe you'll be crueler about the overall quality), but it was entertaining enough for three hours of live song and dance."

Not everyone loved the two stars. Variety, which didn’t like the show at all, said that Williams’ "singing voice was perfectly fine, but seemed far less boyish – and buoyant – than other famous occupants of the Peter Pan role on stage," and that Walken was "an intriguing choice in theory, but whose laid-back take on Captain Hook and muted voice only exhibited the faintest spark when he had an opportunity to dance."

Christopher Walken
Christopher Walken Photo by Patrick Randak/NBC

And many complained the production was too long at three hours and sagged a bit in the middle. "NBC's live telling of J.M. Barrie's classic tale Thursday was an oddly ponderous, disconnected, disjointed and jerky mess," declared AP. "If it had been a Broadway show, it would have gotten the hook (pun intended)… This Peter Pan needed a lot more fairy dust."

But other reviews ended on back-patting, laudatory notes. After airing a great many misgivings, the Times review ended by saying "Peter Pan Live! was a loving, lavish tribute to a beloved musical that offered a new generation of children a chance to use their smartphones to keep Tinkerbell alive. (Peter asked children to clap, but an NBC crawl urged them to also tweet.) It was a cautious, please-all production, but it took guts to do it."

To a certain extent, reviews of this type of event entertainment are essentially meaningless. Once the critics weigh in, the show’s over, and it ain’t gonna happen again. (In-the-moment tweets are more significant critical yardsticks, in their piquant, succinct way.) The real point is: Did the viewers like it? And the only way you can measure that is if they chose to watch it.

Well, they did, though not as many as tuned in as last year. "The Sound of Music Live!" was viewed by more than 18 million viewers when it aired in December 2013. Ratings for "Peter Pan Live!" were down by nearly 50 percent, according to preliminary figures reported by TV Media Insights. In comparison to "The Sound of Music Live!," which reeled in 10.6 ratings/18 share overnight, "Peter Pan Live!" came in at just 5.9/9, a 46 percent drop.

NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt told Variety that the network did not expect ratings as high as last year's event. Despite the drop, "Peter Pan Live!" was still a major win for the network. So, bring on that 2015 broadcast of The Music Man with Chris Pratt as Harold Hill and Ellen DeGeneres as Marion the Librarian!

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The big screen has its own huge theatre story this season. It’s the new film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods.

This is only the second major film treatment of a Sondheim musical in recent years, after the Tim Burton-directed "Sweeney Todd" in 2007. "Into the Woods" has a screenplay by Lapine and is directed by Rob Marshall, who had a hit in the movie-musical genre with "Chicago" back in 2002, but hasn’t had much luck since.

Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep Photo by Disney

The film has a starry line-up, beginning with Meryl Streep as the Witch. Emily Blunt and James Cordon play the Baker's Wife and the Baker, respectively, while Anna Kendrick is Cinderella, Chris Pine is Cinderella’s Prince and Johnny Depp (who was Sweeney in "Sweeney Todd") is the Wolf. Filming took place in England, which may partly explain the preponderance of English actors in the cast.

The film is expected to by Oscar bait and Disney’s Academy Awards campaigning is already underway. The film will be released Dec. 25.

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If it’s possible in this day and age for a critic to be beloved, the late Roger Ebert is that critic. In the final years of his life (he died in 2013), as he struggled bravely with illness, cheerfully going on with life and work even though cancer surgery had removed his ability to speak. He advanced in the public eye, becoming a figure who was respected for something more than his wit and intelligence and critical acumen.

Chicago's Black Ensemble Theater apparently considers Ebert to be of sufficient public interest that they are staging a play inspired by him. And an odd sort of play it will be. Called The Black White Play, it is a musical tribute to Ebert, “where the music will speak to his philosophy of life.”

It may be worth the price of admission to find out how they pull that trick off.

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Well, it only took almost two years, but Matilda The Musical on Broadway is in the black. It has paid back its $16 million investment on Broadway, making the show a rare hit simultaneously on Broadway and in London’s West End.

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