Critics Weigh In On Sound of Music Live

11:55 AM, Dec 6, 2013   |    comments
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Robert Bianco, USA Today

They should have just stuck with the music.

Give NBC credit for trying something different Thursday with The Sound of Music (** out of four), the first live broadcast of a musical in over 50 years, and for putting it in the hands of the two producers best able to pull off such a complicated effort, Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. Give even more credit to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, whose score brought this brave but ultimately tepid production momentarily to life whenever it kicked back in.

And yes, give credit even to Carrie Underwood, this Music's Maria, for being willing to risk comparisons to Mary Martin and Julie Andrews and tackle a Broadway classic -- live, without a retake net -- even though she has no real acting experience. Odds are good that without her, and the fan base NBC no doubt hoped she would bring along, there would have been no Music at all.

The trouble is that with her, it wasn't very good.

As her multiple Grammys and her legion of country music fans will attest, the quality of Underwood's singing voice is not the problem. It's that she doesn't know how to use that voice to sing in character, or what to do with her face when she's trying.

Still, for the most part, the strength of the songs and of her own vocal talents pulled her through when she was singing. It was the speaking that did her in: The eyes went blank, the voice went flat, and Maria turned to wood. It left her unable to establish any chemistry with her Captain, Stephen Moyer, who was shaky himself. And without that, the romance that propels the story makes no sense.

Her limitations as an actor were particularly obvious when she was sharing scenes with the show's two best assets: Tony winners Audra McDonald as the Mother Abbess and Laura Benanti as the Baroness. Perhaps with time, Underwood will learn how to put a lilt in her line readings, as Benanti did - or how to pour emotion into a song, as the incomparable McDonald did with Climb Ev'ry Mountain, one of the evening's few high points. But for now, she's simply not ready to carry a Broadway show.

Not that it was a Broadway show, mind you. Thursday's broadcast was a hybrid, done live like theater, but shot in a studio, without an audience, as movies are. At its best, the combination provided the excitement and risk of live TV, that heady feeling that something could go wrong at any moment, while giving you more fluidity and grander sets than a version shot in a theater would allow.

The downside was a certain flatness to the sound mix, a disconnect between the voices and the orchestra and an emptiness that caused the few jokes the script provided to land with a thud. The story also often seemed to jump at every break, though whether that was the fault of the adaptation or simply a reaction to those horrid Music-themed commercials is hard to tell.

Yet if it wasn't a completely successful experiment, it was still a worthy one. Surely at least a few viewers enjoyed spotting the differences between the film and the Broadway original, and appreciated the attempt, as the song says, to do something good. And let's not forget the high degree of difficulty, pulled off practically glitch free. So give them thanks, and give them credit.

And then go rent the movie.

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