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TV Reviews : Will Vintage ‘Peter Pan’ Play to Today’s Youngsters?

Never-never land isn’t the only refuge for those who want to stay forever young. They can also try videotape.

Look what happened to Peter Pan himself. He’ll show up on NBC tonight (Channels 4, 36 and 39 at 8 p.m.) looking just as he did in 1960, when NBC first broadcast this peacock-color version of the show about the boy who won’t grow up.

Of course, the rest of the world has proceeded on its way without Peter. Will today’s children, many of whom have been bedazzled and then jaded by a parade of special-effects extravaganzas, care about the plight of Peter and Wendy and mean old Captain Hook?

Even in this musical, which is set in a much earlier era, Peter remarks that “children know such a lot now. Soon they don’t believe. . . .”

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Well, if they don’t believe this “Peter Pan,” don’t blame Mary Martin. Her performance remains as fresh as a baby’s first laugh (to borrow an image from the script). Yet it’s not as simple as it looks.

Martin caught Peter’s sad side as well as his exuberance, and that sad side has become even more interesting in the intervening years, which have seen pop psychologists point to Peter as a metaphor for what’s wrong with modern men. When Peter chirps, “No one’s going to catch me and make me a man,” a number of women are likely to raise their eyebrows and exchange knowing glances.

They also might note that Wendy, the one girl in the story, goes to never-never land in order to play the role of a mother, not that of a perpetual girl. In fact, the aggressively smug and maternal performance of Maureen Bailey as Wendy is enough to make anyone pause to think about the implications.

Bailey’s overacting is the one fly in the ointment of this “Peter Pan.” Her emphatic smile and relentless enthusiasm seem about as ingenuous as those of your average Miss America contestant.

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Another kind of overacting, however--that of Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook and as Wendy’s father--is still delightful. Unlike Wendy, Captain Hook is no one’s idea of a role model, so it’s fun to see Ritchard take the role to the end of the plank and beyond.

By grown-up standards, “Peter Pan” bogs down somewhat on the island, where the just-pretend pirates and Indians quickly wear out their welcome. But the essential bittersweetness of James M. Barrie’s story and the 1954 score (by Carolyn Leigh, Moose Charlap, Jule Styne, Adolph Green and Betty Comden) remains deeply affecting.

Vincent J. Donehue’s television staging, based on the stage version directed by Jerome Robbins, creaks only slightly. For example, a wire is visible in the otherwise priceless close-up of little Michael (Kent Fletcher) ascending in his first taste of flying.

Also, the flying was obviously restricted to swinging back and forth, even in the open skies. While adults might appreciate the pristine innocence of this, inquisitive older kids might wonder how someone who’s merely swinging could ever get from the Darling home to never-never land.

Simply tell them that never-never land “is not on any chart. You must find it with your heart.”

The color quality is superb, especially when compared with the drained-out hues that now appear in so many films of that era. Those who restored this “Peter Pan” and cleared it for re-broadcast can join Peter in one rousing verse of “I Gotta Crow.”


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