It took five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald to do what two directors and a lifetime of concerts couldn’t – pull a heartfelt performance out of country singer Carrie Underwood.
Cast as Maria in NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live,” Underwood didn’t feel the part until McDonald -- as the head of the convent – sang “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Then, she – like we – couldn’t stop the tears.
And the noble experiment reached its sole emotional peak .
Clearly, casting Underwood in a role this iconic was a risk. Without acting experience, it was an uphill climb. Someone prompted her to over-enunciate, which gave her performance a stiff, almost detached quality. When she sang, she was on secure ground, able to hold her own in Julie Andrews’ shadow. But in the world of Maria von Trapp performances this one belonged on the high school stage.
The show – using the Broadway script, not the movie one – had a different sequence of events and enough reprises of “My Favorite Things” to qualify as a drinking game.
Underwood wasn’t helped any by a stiffer-than-stiff Stephen Moyer as Captain von Trapp. Covered in more makeup than the oh-so-good Laura Benanti (as Frau Schrader, his gal pal), he didn’t even have a great voice to fall back on, just a stern look that made him more one-dimensional than the Alps behind him.
The Broadway folks – from McDonald, who was Emmy-worthy, to Christian Borle, who knew just where to find the laughs – were solid. The von Trapp kids were, too. They handled all the group songs with aplomb, charging up and down the double staircase without missing a breath. They made Underwood look not-so-underwooden and gave her regular moments to breathe and smile.
Directed by Rob Ashford and Beth McCarthy-Miller, the live edition moved briskly and came off with nary a hitch. There were slips here and there (Underwood nearly fell while singing the title song) but the three-hour production moved well enough to warrant a second or third viewing.
Had a Broadway regular been cast in the leading role, it could have been the most engaging special of the holiday season. (Considering Benanti played the role on Broadway, it must have been hard not to ask her to take a run at this one.) With Underwood, it was a clear why stunt casting is so big on New York’s stages – stars sell tickets.
While this “Sound of Music” won’t have the eternal life Julie Andrews’ version enjoys, it should prompt networks to try theater on TV again. Mary Martin gained a whole new following back in the 1950s and ‘60s transferring her hits to the small screen. Someone like McDonald could, too.
In the right part, she could give Broadway on TV wings. Thursday night she lifted “Sound of Music Live” in ways no one could have imagined. She was heavenly. The rest? Decidedly earthbound.