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'Peter Pan Live': Neither mess nor magic, but some vintage Walken

'Peter Pan Live' was neither mess nor magic, but Christopher Walken was something to behold

Christopher Walken.

With Judy Garland eyebrows, Motley Crue hair and a red bandanna.

Playing a tambourine.

A moment so wonderful I still can’t believe it was real.

There were many reasons to watch NBC’s “Peter Pan Live” Thursday night, very few of them having to do with a love of live theater or J.M. Barrie’s timeless tale.

A near-parental concern over how Alison Williams, with her Rose Queen smile and “Girls” cred, would fare in the pixie cut and flight-giving harness may have dominated the preparatory press, but it was just a beard. What many were really hoping for was a full-scale disaster, a mess even bigger and more tweet-worthy than last year’s “The Sound of Music Live.”

Instead, they got three long hours of "fine" bedazzled here and there by Walken, using his deadpan lunacy and stop-motion syncopation to create a Captain Hook beside whom Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow looks like a Naval Academy valedictorian.

Surrounded by pirates more glam-rock hair than menacing corsair, Walken’s Hook moved with a knowing, and occasionally line-dropping, weariness that might have been camp if only the Captain were able to summon the energy. But any thought that the actor was phoning it in vanished when the music swelled; “a hook for every boy and every boy on a hook,” he sang at one point, citing his dearest wish with such a Mae Westian gleam one wondered about the TV G rating.

He did not save the show so much as sporadically jump-start it. Produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, with a teleplay by Irene Mecchi, “Peter Pan Live” was far from the disaster hate-watchers hoped for, but despite all the big dance numbers, credible solos and accident-free flight, it dutifully marched, and occasionally crawled where it should have soared.  

Some of this was due to the inevitable mismatch of stage production and television. In this age of digital wizardry, Tinkerbell was a big and early disappointment, appearing old-school as a skittering shard of light shaped more like a mosquito than a fairy. Wendy (Taylor Louderman) and the Lost Boys, the latter clad inexplicably in tattered schoolboy uniforms, were all in their 20s, something that might have passed behind the footlights but not in close-up.

The camera also made a much bigger issue of Williams’ gender. Women have played Peter Pan since Barrie created him -- it’s too demanding a role for a child and the performer has to be small enough to “fly.” But even with the short hair, Williams was very clearly a girl, which gave Wendy’s obsession kisses a subtext the author probably did not intend.

But not much, actually, because there was absolutely no chemistry, romantic or otherwise, between Pan and Wendy, or Pan and Hook, or Pan and Tink. Williams has a lovely singing voice and took to flying with gamine grace, but she brought none of the grubby joy, childish rebellion, pent-up energy or airy narcissism to the role that others have. Her Pan hit her marks and not the walls, sang sweetly and struck the requisite poses, but he seemed neither cocksure nor afraid, which made his triumph over Hook, and his parting from Wendy, little more than a few bits of familiar dialogue and some stage direction.

So neither mess nor magic, which may be the biggest disappointment of them all.

If it hadn’t been for Walken, that is, wandering around in that red bandanna and manic daze, banging his tambourine.

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