Sound of Music: Audra McDonald steals the live show

Sound of Music: Audra McDonald, the five-time Tony winner, brought one of the emotional high points to the live NBC performance of "Sound of Music" starring Carrie Underwood. Audra McDonald played a majestic Mother Abbess.

Whew, that was nerve-wracking, right? All those kids and staircases, pillow fights, candles and dancing. But somehow the cast and crew of NBC's three-hour live telecast of "The Sound of Music" pulled it off Thursday night with only a trodden-on dress, some inconsistent sound levels and a flubbed few words.

This was the first time in more than a half-century since a broadcast network dared to mount a full-scale musical for live TV and there seemed to be danger everywhere, making it impossible to stop watching in case one of the von Trapp kids tumbled into a fountain or a camera accidentally exploded. But it was all whiskers on kittens and warm woolen mittens, for the most part.

The only real problem was the real reason most people tuned in: Carrie Underwood, an "American Idol" winner and country music star, sang well as Maria but her acting inexperience was laid bare. She had zero chemistry with her love interest and lacked any intensity or shading. Deer in headlights have emoted more. How do you solve a problem like Maria, indeed.

Underwood was done no favors by being surrounded by some Broadway veterans — Christian Borle, Laura Benanti and Audra McDonald, especially — who thrive under the lights and pressure. This is what these Tony Award winners do for a living and it showed. It was like watching a Nissan Sentra try to drag race with a pack of Bugatti Veyrons.

As Sioux City Journal critic Bruce Miller wrote:

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 .

Full credit goes to Underwood for trying, though. She was not just dancing and singing live in front of millions in a medium she is a novice at, but she also was stepping into the role made famous by Julie Andrews in the 1965 film. As if that wasn't enough, it was also only a few hours after the death of Nelson Mandela. Theater lovers mocked her on Twitter but the only reason we got to see "The Sound of Music" on TV was Underwood. No one is about to build a live network musical around a Broadway star, alas.

Viewers who tuned in hoping to catch the film version may have been surprised at what was broadcast from a Long Island soundstage. This show was based on the stage original, penned as a vehicle for Mary Martin, not the Andrews film. It includes several songs that were left out of the movie — "No Way to Stop It" and "How Can Love Survive" — and is darker, with more Nazis.

The directors — Tony-nominated director and choreographer Rob Marshall and Emmy-nominated "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock" director-producer Beth McCarthy-Miller — used all six sets efficiently and the dozen cameras worked hard, catching close-ups as well as sweeping shots. But it was often strangely lifeless, with the crack and zing of being live rarely transmitting through the screen.

It was supposed to be spectacular, appointment TV in this era of DVRs and binge watching. It's unclear if this was the breakthrough that will start a whole new musical revolution. What it really turned out to be was an advertisement for Broadway (smart shows currently running like "Wicked" and "Rogers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" bought commercials) and the skills that veterans of the stage can bring.

Borle was arch and wonderfully slimy as Max, Benanti was glamorously witty as Elsa, and McDonald was a majestic Mother Abbess. Michael Campayno as Rolf was a natural though he's still in drama school and Ariane Rinehart was a winning Liesl. Stephen Moyer, who is primarily known for his work on HBO's "True Blood," was a particularly stern Captain and more than a few people watching would probably have liked him to ditch the nun drop-out and stay with Benanti.

But Carrie Underwood was the star and she gets her man in the end. Underwood also got us to watch yet it was Borle, Benanti and McDonald who showed the world how to hold a moonbeam in your hand.

___

Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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