Entertainment

12.06.13

‘Sound of Music Live!’ Review: The Hills Are Barely Alive

Was Carrie Underwood a good Maria? No. Was NBC’s decision to do a live staging of ‘The Sound of Music’ a good one? Maybe not. Was it fun anyway? Actually, kinda.

The poor hills. They finally come alive, only to experience a rotating flurry of emotions so dizzying it's as if the indefatigable Carrie Underwood started spinning on them at the beginning of NBC's The Sound of Music Live! and didn't stop for the entire three-hour broadcast. And, honestly, the country singer tackled her turn as Maria with such grating gusto she'd probably had done just that if she was asked to.

The experience of watching The Sound of Music Live! was a bit of an exhausting one. Not a bad one. Not a good one. But one that took energy.

There was weathering the crippling outrage over the project's mere existence—the nerve of staging a production without Julie Andrews in the lead!—that could very well have grounded the whole affair had NBC not been so bullish on it. Then came the hopefulness, a quick prayer to worn-out Sound of Music VHS tapes we all watched growing up that the production wouldn't be a train wreck. The quick sigh of relief came at the sound of the nuns prettily singing the opening song, only to be followed by the gut-punch suffocation of every breath when, all-of-a-sudden, Carrie Underwood was frolicking manically in a fake forest wearing Austrian drag. Nothing, really, can prepare one for that.

The roller coaster of emotions never really ceased. Are your eyes tired? It's from a combination of excessive cringing and sustained weeping. So much of the broadcast was hard to watch, not so much the fault of the actors as the actually quite subpar show being performed and the whole idea of the live telecast itself. And just as much of it was shockingly moving, thanks in Alps-sized part to the glorious talents of Tony-winners Audra MacDonald and Laura Benanti in scene-stealing supporting roles.

Listen, it takes a lot of effort to twirl energetically on a mountaintop and make it look good. The effort it took to put on The Sound of Music Live! radiated off the screen, draining the energy of the viewers who watched. But, occasionally, it even turned into, as Maria would sing, something good.

Sadly, it wasn't until she sang "Something Good" that Underwood's tireless guile finally succeeded in winning over the audience. Her performance of the song had confidence (now's a good time to lament that "I Have Confidence," a song added just to the film version of The Sound of Music, was not featured in this production) that took the American Idol winner nearly the entire show to properly build. Naturally, Underwood sounded astounding, as alive as those damned hills, every time she was asked to stand on top of things and belt. But whether it was because of nerves or lack of experience, her acting was painfully lifeless and amateur throughout the first two thirds of the lengthy ordeal. The singer, it seems, is a proud graduate of the school of "If I don't blink, they'll think I'm acting!"

To say that Underwood was no Julie Andrews is one of life's greatest certainties, and maybe it's not fair to compare the two stars. But the truth is that millions of people tuned in Thursday night to do just that, compare Underwood to Andrews… and then throw her off an Alps cliff when she didn't measure up. Underwood's performance, however, really just underlined what a tricky role Maria is to pull off, and how astounding it is that Andrews managed to do it. Andrews skipped through the role with the ceaseless ebullience of a baby deer in spring, imbuing that effervescence in everything from a mountaintop spin to yodeling with wooden puppets to a romance with grouchy Christopher Plummer. Girl was brave. Remember that boyish bob?

Underwood was like a deer, too. But one in headlights.

Because of that, one can't really tell if it was a brilliant or boneheaded idea to surround her with a supporting cast of such talented actors. First of all, this telecast featured some of the best singing nuns since Whoopi Goldberg was Back in the Habit. That roller coaster of emotions we were talking about earlier? We were rocketed through some prolific loop-de-loops just two bars into Audra MacDonald's rendition of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" as Mother Abbess. If you didn't shed a tear during that epic performance, you might be an Underwood. I mean a robot. Heck, even Underwood was full-on ugly crying during the performance, likely betraying the inner monologue: "Audra MacDonald is belting this song in my ear and I will never find such happiness again."

Then there's the radiant Laura Benanti as Captain Von Trapp's (Vampire Bill himself, Stephen Moyer) hope-to-be fiancé, Elsa Schraeder. Along with Smash and Broadway alum Christian Borle, she can now be certified as an expert spelunker, for the feats of mining she did to surface errant bits of comedy from the overly earnest script the cast was working with. When Elsa breaks up with Von Trapp and sulks off stage near the end, you hate to see her go. Though Benanti looks good while she leaves. Her costuming was flawless.

(Sidebar conspiracy theory: the wardrobe department was out to sabotage Underwood. Take the party scene. Every guest is outfitted in exquisite ball gowns and tuxedos. Underwood is wearing an oversized milkmaid's dress, frumpier than the milkmaid's dress she wore in the previous scene… but not as frumpy as the one she put on for the next one. So much frump!)

So, yes, the cast did work exceptionally hard, none more than Underwood, to give her the credit she truly deserves, to sell the material. The material, however, is The Sound of Music. And it's not even The Sound of the Music movie, it's the stage show. And The Sound of Music stage show is a bit whack.

It's a musical where, essentially, three songs are sung six times each at various points throughout the show and you're expected not to get bored of them. It's a show with two major conflicts. In one, a father is upset that his children's clothes are made out of curtains. In the other, the Nazis are invading Austria. They are given the same weight. It's a show where a Mother Superior at an abbey sings an epically moving ballad to a scared young nun, and you later realize that she was just telling the nun to go out there, sex herself up a little, and break up a pending marriage. The Sound of Music: The Story of Maria, the Hussy Nun.

Worse for fans of the movie who may not have even realized that it was also a stage production, there are loads of differences between the stage show and the film, especially in what are now iconic scenes. Maria sings "My Favorite Things" in the abbey to Mother Abbess, not to the children. Love the yodeling puppets from the "Lonely Goatherd" scene? They're not there, because Maria now sings it with the children in her bedroom, sans props. And there's no synchronized bench hopping at all in the choreography of "I Am Sixteen (Going on Seventeen)." It's a tragedy.

The mood of the whole piece was weird, too. Though it was performed live, it was shot as if it was a movie, on what must be the biggest soundstage of all time—the set was massive. So you never saw a proscenium, stage curtains, or an audience. Laugh lines didn't receive laughter. Vamping for applause after a song never actually had applause to vamp to. The hybrid nature of the project ended up zapping the energy from both worlds—film and live theater—rather than combining them.

But, though she was nowhere near perfect, one country singer with an extra-large Heidi braid had enough energy to make up for that. Enough to bring those hills back to life, even. It's the least we can do to drop any cynicism over the project and harsh reaction to the execution of it and appreciate the huge gamble and undertaking it was to reanimate those mountains, and how fun it was to—even without Julie Andrews and even if it was kind of a mess—be twirling on them again.