Thursday night NBC staged a three-hour live performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” the world’s most beloved musical, with Carrie Underwood as Maria von Trapp, a role originated onstage by Mary Martin and belonging forever to Julie Andrews, who starred in the 1965 film. It was, in its many opportunities for failure and public mockery, a crazy thing to do. But they did it.
Underwood is, of course, the pop superstar who first got famous as the fourth season winner of “American Idol.” She has acted in one film (the 2011 “Soul Surfer”) and an episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” and done skits on TV specials in which she has handled herself capably, and obviously she’s not afraid of messing up in front of a large crowd.
She also seems like a nice person; one would naturally root for her to do well. Still, it would have been best not to have to do that while the show was running. She was not the only obstacle to losing oneself in the play, certainly, but she was the one in the middle of the screen and the action. “The Sound of Music” has a big cast, but it is Maria’s load to carry.
If I could sing these songs as well as Underwood, I would sing them until the world was sick of me. But as a stage actress, there was no way to regard her as anything but an amateur - good enough, certainly, to convey the meaning of her lines, and sometimes better than that, but lacking weight and substance and the shadings she can bring to a song. She cried real tears, too, but that may have been an effect of standing next to Audra McDonald, as the Mother Abbess, singing “Climb Every Mountain.” Wouldn’t you?
Indeed, Underwood - whose marquee name, after all, was part of what this project required - was surrounded and supported by people whose experience she lacked; director Rob Ashford has directed successful Broadway revivals of “Evita,” “Promises, Promises” and “ “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and choreographed many more; co-director Beth McCarthy ran “Saturday Night Live” for 11 years.
With her on camera were theater veterans McDonald, Christian Borle (who was on NBC’s musical theater series “Smash”) and Laura Bernanti, who has herself played Maria on Broadway; Borle and Bernanti, both excellent, shared two numbers left out of the movie, “How Can Love Survive” and “No Way to Stop It.” (The production followed the lines of the stage play.)
In their singing and dancing of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” Michael Campayno as Rolf and Ariane Reinhardt as Liesl (the juvenile, albeit an incipient Nazi, and the ingenue), were as good as one could want. The littler kids, being kids, were as good as they needed to be.
But where Underwood could have used the most help, from her love interest, Captain von Trapp, little was coming. Stephen Moyer (from “True Blood,” but with plenty of stage credits) had the anger and the stiffness the role certainly requires, but not the humor it needs. There was little sense, other than our own knowledge of the play or expectations of the form, that they were fated to fall for one another. He did sing well.
Musicals have worked on television; the Mary Martin “Peter Pan,” mounted more than once, was a holiday staple for years. Andrews herself was first introduced to America as the star of the Rodgers and Hammerstein made-for-TV musical “Cinderella,” broadcast live on CBS in 1957. Still, there can be hurdles: If it is not television as usual, it is not like the theater either, where an audience is part of the ambience, its reactions part of the show. Without laughter or applause, jokes and songs can seem to be falling flat.
It was helpful, if you wanted to help, to regard this as really terrific community theater, rather than something professional and less than successful. But they got through it, and if as a critic I am bound to be critical, as an ordinary citizen I salute the effort. I imagine them all going off to Sardi’s afterward to wait for the reviews, and keeping their chins up when they read them.