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It’s easy to remember a musical for its songs. That is, after all, what makes a musical different from every other kind of narrative: The characters will shout to the rafters in full throat, revealing things they just can’t speak, because the music gives them leave to lay themselves bare.
And the songs in The Sound of Music are sublime. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II knew their way around a tune and these numbers — from “My Favorite Things” to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” to the indefatigable “Do-Re-Mi” — have endured since the Broadway production bowed in 1959 for good reason. But the story lives in the hearts of audiences because of Robert Wise‘s 1965 film adaptation starring Julie Andrews as Maria, the would-be nun trying to quench her yearning heart, and Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp, the stoic Austrian unwilling to reignite his. Andrews’ undeniable empathy and Plummer’s prickly sensuality sold that love story to a generation, who’ve since passed it down to every other.
With their live adaptation of the Broadway musical, NBC took a big swing for the fences. They spent a reported $9 million on the production and its cavernous set, which had to house the Austrian countryside, the interior of the Nonnberg Abbey, the Von Trapp estate and the arena where the Von Trapp Family Singers stage their final performance (draped in probably one too many Nazi flags). They engaged Craig Zadan and Neil Meron — of NBC’s calamitous Smash — to produce. They got Audra McDonald to bring her pipes. They found a clutch of children who didn’t have (too much) of that child-performer pomp. And they got Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer to play the lovers. And, well, whoops.
Because while Underwood can deliver the songs — I’m sure that anyone with the desire to plunge themselves into the American Idol ringer has been singing those songs for most of her life — she doesn’t acquit herself so well when it comes to carrying the emotional weight of the production. And perhaps it was unfair to ask so much of Underwood, to have to make Maria’s journey in three scant hours — whereas Andrews had weeks of production — while enduring costume changes and remembering choreography and trying not to look at the prompter and not step on anyone’s lines or feet. Underwood nails the look of a virginal almost-nun, but goes no deeper than that. Blank stares and placid smiles.
Moyer is a better singer than Russell Crowe, I’ll give him that. But he’s no Hugh Jackman. Or Neil Patrick Harris. Or Taye Diggs. Or even Nathan Fillion. His attempt at conveying an emotional hollowness just reads as mild constipation, his furrowed eyes and pursed lips doing all the work. He doesn’t look stoic, he just looks clenched.
The production itself came off without a hitch — no easy feat with so many moving parts and opportunities for blown lines or stumble down staircases (oh, how I wished for a staircase stumble to lighten the three hours). The supporting cast was strong: Laura Benanti was appropriately sultry as Elsa Von Hottie, while Christian Borle was appropriately hammy as Max Detweiler and someone should find a way to have McDonald sing audiences into every commercial break. And while the camerawork — by directors Rob Ashford and Beth McCarthy-Miller (who directed 30 Rock‘s live episodes) — made everything still feel a little stagebound, the storytelling was clear.
And yet, without Underwood and Moyer selling us on this legendary love story, The Sound of Music Live plays like very expensive karaoke.
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