Well, it’s over. I just spent three hours watching NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live” starring Carrie Underwood. And after the von Trapp clan headed out into the Austrian wilderness, I immediately ran to my room and listened to the original “Sound of Music” movie soundtrack. I had to listen to Julie Andrews sing “My Favorite Things” three times to cleanse my mental palette before I began writing this review. So here it is: my thoughts on what just happened on national television.
A disclaimer: I like to pretend that I have some idea about the theatrical world. Since childhood, I have been involved in over 30 plays and musicals, both in community and educational theater programs. I also have nothing against Carrie Underwood. I have been known to sing “Jesus Take the Wheel” in the shower.
Until tonight, I had never seen the stage version. It was quite different from the 1965 movie we all know and love. While the different song order threw me at first, I feel like the story flowed better and made more sense overall. I did miss the playful puppets in the “Lonely Goatherd” song and the upbeat “I have Confidence.” The large format also made it impossible for little details to be shown, such as my favorite part in the movie when the von Trapp children place a pine cone on Maria’s chair at dinner.
The staging was rather innovative. The abbey flowed into the von Trapp residence which flowed into a Nazi concert hall. This setup seemed to be rather true to a stage production. The lighting was dreadful. It always seemed to be dusk in Austria. Odd shadows fell across faces, maybe the failed attempt at gaining a Rembrandt lighting effect. The coloring inside of the house seemed to be too yellow-tinted. I felt the actors were all lacking a healthy dose of blush; their complexions seemed rather pale and sallow to me.
The costumes struck me as either spot-on or a dreadful miss. The baroness Elsa wore a spectacular red dress and charming pantsuit. Carrie, I’m afraid, had no such luck. Maria seemed to always be in a traditional Austrian getup with puffy white sleeves. This was weird as the butler and the maid wore regular outfits. When she took her hair out of a large Heidi-style braid, Maria was transformed from former Austrian governess to 1960s go-go dancer. At one point she donned a bright blue skirt suit which screamed airline stewardess. Her wedding dress did not contain sparkles as I predicted. It was worse: a wrinkled slim-fitting gown with lace sleeves and shoulders.
Now, to dissect the cast. Most of the actors and actresses were fantastic. Standouts include the baroness (Laura Benanti, who won a Tony for her work in 2008’s Gypsy revival), Uncle Max Detweiler (A poorly-mustached Christian Borle, another Tony winner known for his roles in Spamalot, Legally Blonde: the Musical and the TV series “Smash”) and Mother Abbess (Audra McDonald, who has two Grammys and five Tony awards.) McDonald’s rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” was the best musical number in the production. It was quite moving, and I could see many people purchasing it on iTunes.
The children were great. Liesl was beautiful and convincing, Kurt sounded like an angel with his effortless high notes and Marta and Gretl were cute as a button.
Stephen Moyer didn’t bother me as Captain von Trapp. Christopher Plummer will always hold a special place in my heart, but even Plummer was dubbed in the film version.
And here we are: Ms. Underwood. Her performance started on shaky feet. She seemed nervous and unsure when singing the title track in the faux woods. She even accidentally looked at the camera few times and seemed to falter at the end. As the story progressed, Underwood seemed more confident and gave a much better performance. However, it simply wasn’t that great.
Carrie managed to convey a lot of emotion with her eyes. She teared up two separate times, which surprised me. Her speaking voice, though, was devoid of emotion. It was the most distracting thing about the performance, more so than the shaky camera angles, the branches that obscured faces in the forest or the fuzzy audio. Underwood’s low and slow voice made it seem like she was reading off of cue cards. She lacked the slight accent and gusto that the other actors put behind their words. And then there is the singing voice. As expected, Underwood defaulted to her typical belting style, which canceled any hope for “subtlety and nuance” as the Washington Times wrote. While her signature twang was absent, it just didn’t seem quite melodic or cheerful enough to convey proper emotion.
In conclusion, I was rooting for her. I really was. I tried to remain optimistic. I looked at the bright side. I complimented her. I tried to not get distracted by the giant braid on her head or the go-go dancer hair. The performance wasn’t even really disappointing, because I was not expecting much. It wasn’t fair to cast Carrie Underwood in such a beloved and iconic role with a seasoned supporting cast. There was no way she could have been on par with the other performers this far removed from her element. But I suspect that is exactly what NBC wanted and needed for this endeavor to be a success; a pop culture figure that audiences could take sides on and battle it out, as I saw happen on Twitter tonight.
Both celebrities (Cameron Diaz) and regular folk were live tweeting their reactions to the performance. (I personally sent out 54 tweets. Luckily, nobody unfollowed me. I even gained two followers!) Most of the twittersphere panned the performance, but they don’t really like much of anything. However, Twitter did bring us some true gems of insight tonight, such as the following two tweets I thought were the funniest.
This one involves a picture of Marta scared by lightening during the “My Favorite Things” song.
This one expresses admiration for Audra McDonald during her beautiful and inspiring performance of “Climb Every Mountain,” which was arguably the best performance of the evening:
The night’s best social media commentary came from DiGiorno Pizza’s account. The tweets were hilarious and were quickly shared all across the internet. Some examples:
According to a New York Post article, the last time a production like this was televised was in 1957, when a 21-year-old Julie Andrews delighted 105 million viewers as the title role in Roger and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” (What were you doing when you were 21?)
So why did NBC decide to spend an estimated $9 million dollars to revamp “The Sound of Music?”
I don’t know, and I don’t really care. But I do know that whether you loved the show or loved-to-hate it, this production was important. It brought live theater into homes around the United States.
Going to see a play is no easy task. For example, to see a musical at the Omaha Community Playhouse it will cost you $40 a pop ($24 if you are student.) That is expensive! And while I am a huge advocate of live theater, this former theater major knows that going to see a performance is not feasible for many people. This is a nice substitute, a way for the American public to get a small shot of culture without having to leave their houses. It is like comparing Cheez-Whiz to authentic cheddar: there really is no doubt which is the superior product. But isn’t having Cheez-Whiz better than going cheese-less? And are you really going to put shredded aged cheddar on nachos?
So bravo, NBC, for bringing a live musical theater substitute to basic cable. I am sure that musical theater fans hope you do it again soon. We will now come prepared, nacho chips in hand.