About 10 minutes into Thursday night’s much-hyped live performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music’’ on NBC, I started praying for a power outage to knock out my TV reception.
Yes, it was that bad. Or, to be precise, Carrie Underwood was that bad.
The role of Maria, the young novice who finds true love and many excuses to warble when she leaves an abbey and goes to care for the seven children of Captain von Trapp, has been played by two of the greatest performers in the history of musicals: Mary Martin on Broadway, starting in 1959, and Julie Andrews in the 1965 film.
What on earth made NBC think Underwood could follow in their footsteps?
This was celebrity casting at its most self-defeating. Underwood was clearly over her head, and she gave a performance as Maria that was so amateurish and emotionally vacant it wouldn’t have passed muster in a community theater production.
The problem was evident early in “The Sound of Music,’’ when Underwood delivered an anemic and colorless rendition of the title tune. Soon enough, however, her wooden delivery of Maria’s dialogue made you long for those moments when she was singing.
As von Trapp, Stephen Moyer (“True Blood’’) was a bit better, especially when the Nazi menace began to spread in the character’s beloved Austria. From start to finish, though, Moyer and Underwood generated exactly zero romantic chemistry.
Matters brightened only when three illustrious Broadway talents took matters into their own hands. Audra McDonald, trading in the red dress she wore in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’’ for a nun’s habit, shone as the Mother Abbess, especially when singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.’’ Laura Benanti was both elegant and poignant as Elsa, whose hopes to marry von Trapp are eventually dashed, while Christian Borle brought his customary deft charm to his portrayal of the cheerfully cynical Max.
But sooner or later the spotlight would shift back to Underwood, and “The Sound of Music’’ would begin to sputter again. NBC packed the three-hour telecast with commercial interruptions, but I, for one, was not complaining. In fact, after the power outage stubbornly failed to materialize, I began to pray for more commercials.