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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Peter Pan
NBC 1960 and YouTube   January 2021

A musical version of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard played on Broadway in 1954. It was broadcast on American television in 1955 and repeated over the next few years.

In 1960 the stars were reassembled for a new colour broadcast, and that was in turn repeated many times, becoming a holiday feature. (The 1954 production was also the basis for several stage revivals over the following decades, with stars including Sandy Duncan and Cathy Rigby, so it is the version most Americans know.)

The recording available on YouTube is the 1960 taping and it is, in a word, wonderful. It is not just nostalgia that colours this with warm gold. The two stars are delightful and most of what goes on around them is just a lot of fun.

Mary Martin was a real superstar of a real Golden Age. While Ethel Merman specialised in big brassy broads, Martin brought a perky gamin quality with a hint of naughtiness in her eyes, perfect for One Touch Of Venus, South Pacific and the role she was creating even as she made this recording, Maria in The Sound Of Music.

We have all seen many actors and acrobats fly on wires, but nobody flies with such balletic grace and sheer happiness as Martin's Peter Pan. And though she was 47 when she made this recording, you don't have to be a child yourself to embrace fully the idea that she's a never-to-grow-up young boy.

Hers is the definitive flying, hers is the definitive plea that we believe in fairies, and she even gets off some impressive coloratura trills in the hide-and-seek duet with Hook, Mysterious Lady.

Meanwhile Cyril Ritchard plays Captain Hook in full high-camp panto villain mode that makes us hunger for more of him than there is.

He flirts shamelessly with the camera, and when the script decides that Hook thinks best to music and the pirate band turn into well, a band he talk-sings his way through a tango and later a tarantella of delicious beastliness.

It's worth noting that Americans have no experience, or even concept of Christmas Panto, so it takes an expat British performer to give Hook the delight in his own nastiness that makes him so irresistible.

The stage production was adapted by director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, and although someone else gets credit for directing the TV version, you can see Robbins's hand in not only the lovely animal ballet and the lively Indian dance (led by Sondra Lee as a perky and improbably blonde Tiger Lily), but in the establishing of an unwavering tone of magical realism that makes it all work.

Two sets of song-writers are credited, with some (including I Won't Grow Up, I'm Flying and that lifelong earworm I Gotta Crow) by Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh, and others (Never Never Land, Mysterious Lady, etc) by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

One caveat: the YouTube version is interrupted frequently by advertisements, perversely coming in the middle of songs, so you need to keep your Skip Ads finger ready.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Peter Pan 1960 - 2021