Thursday, December 5, 2013

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE CARRIE UNDERWOOD?

NBC’s labored version of “The Sound of Music” performed Thursday night proved many things. First, the term ‘live’ couldn’t have been any less appropriate for this D.O.A. production. Two, the movie version is far, far, far superior to the stage version. (Thank you, Ernest Lehman for your brilliant screenplay adaptation that sharpened the material and omitted the duller parts.) And three, Carrie Underwood is a good singer but not much of an actress.

And I couldn’t help but realize as Underwood’s performance lurched over the course of the painfully long three hours, that there will never be another talent like Julie Andrews. Has there ever been anyone, before or since, who had such range, as a singer, dancer and actress –all rolled into one glorious performer? Quick, name another actress who could play zany and serious? Posh and Cockney? A woman and a man? Often within a whisker of each other? Julie Andrews was truly a one-of-a-kind performer.

And after watching Underwood’s virtually humorless performance as Maria von Trapp, I realized how funny Andrews was in the role. Her willingness to look silly made the novelty number “The Lonely Goatherd” one of the absolute highlights of the movie. And she was even cuter than those adorable Bil Baird marionettes.

Seeing the stilted production that NBC ambitiously laid out for TV audiences tonight made me keenly aware of how Maria really is almost a musical comedy Lear or Loman. It’s a tough role, requiring charming children one moment and staring down Nazis the next. And try as she might, Carrie Underwood just wasn’t up to the task. Her Maria was merely competent; competent in the way the most charming cheerleader would play her in a high school production. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t ever going to even touch the hem of Andrews’ curtained dress.

The inadequacy of this Maria and this version of “The Sound of Music” were as clear as Andrews’ five-octave range. When Maria is supposed to be able to charm everyone from captains to nuns, and here Laura Benanti’s Countess is eminently more alluring, all hopes are lost. (Speaking of hope, after Benanti and Christian Borle nailed their “How Can Love Survive” number I was hoping that she and Underwood would switch parts during commercial!)

Poor Carrie Underwood. She tried but there was just too little to idolize. But then who could climb the mountain that was Andrews’ Maria? She not only sold a hoary lyric like “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could”, she melted the stony iceberg that was Christopher Plummer! Thus, Andrews’ Maria shall forever remain one of my favorite things.

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