When The Sound of Music sang, it soared. And scored, attracting an astounding 18.5 million viewers Thursday during NBC's ambitious three-hour live broadcast of the enduring Rodgers & Hammerstein classic. Climb every ratings mountain, indeed.
With stunning sets and backdrops, generally gorgeous and enjoyable singing — Those nuns! Those kids! — and fluid direction that attempted to minimize the vacuum effect of people performing to an otherwise empty and hollow-sounding soundstage, this was a pleasurable one-night-only stunt that felt like a major TV event. Trust me, there will be more where this came from. (Let's start casting The King and I now.)
But how do you solve a problem like a Maria whose acting is as wooden as the trees from those hills she adores? Carrie Underwood looked the part, and sang with clarity and purpose, especially when she was frolicking — or better yet, yodeling — with the kids. But when the music stopped, the sound of Underwood was underwhelming: drab, devoid of energy or passion, creating a vapid hole at the center of a charming and diverting production. Her chemistry with a similarly stiff Stephen Moyer, as an awkwardly gaunt Capt. Von Trapp, felt like wilted edelweiss.
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The stars were upstaged by a supporting cast of Tony-winning theater pros including the magnificent Audra McDonald as the Mother Abbess, whose powerful rendition of Climb Every Mountain had Underwood (and I'm betting many viewers) in tears, and Laura Benanti, whose slinky-funny Frau Schrader prompted lots of "Team Elsa" tweets during the telecast. Even Benanti couldn't salvage the blah songs she was given to deliver with Christian Borle's droll Max Detweiler, scenes thankfully missing from the movie version — and a reminder of how much of an improvement the beloved 1965 Julie Andrews film was over the source material.
Nevertheless, NBC's boldly retro, lavish throwback to the earliest days of live TV paid off handsomely, coming full circle to another highly rated (in its day) Rodgers & Hammerstein live TV event: the 1957 production of Cinderella, starring Broadway's pre-movie-stardom Julie Andrews. That musical, written for TV, is now on Broadway, after having been remade twice for TV — in the '60s and then in the '90s, with Brandy and Whitney Houston, the latter from the same producers of this week's spectacular. And so it goes with the classics. I figure we'll be humming "Do Re Mi" at least until the Sunday before Christmas (Dec. 22), when ABC presents its annual holiday airing of the Oscar-winning The Sound of Music. Just try to resist.