How do you solve a problem like Maria? After last night's live broadcast of The Sound of Music, the answer is fairly obvious: you don't cast Carrie Underwood in the lead.
While the sets were beautiful, and the telecast went off without a hitch (aside from a stepped-upon dress and a few flubbed lines), the overall viewing experience was disappointing. Underwood had problems from the get-go. Her bland expression and less than majestic voice failed to convey Maria's wonderment and kinship with the hills in the opening scene. Let's just say Underwood failed to make the hills come alive with the sound of music, and it was downhill from there.
One has to question the choice of Underwood for such an iconic role. If the producers were seeking a ratings-grabbing star rather than a “true” Maria, they did the material a definite injustice. Last night's performance will hardly go down in stage history as a heart-warming classic (as did Mary Martin's 1955 endearing broadcast of Peter Pan). Rather, the presentation will be remembered as Carrie Underwood's less than stellar acting debut, which raises the question: why would Underwood, an “overnight success” as a country girl/singing contest winner/pop star, think she could tackle the beloved character of Maria? Couldn't she tell she was in over her head amongst seasoned stage veterans? (And how did these gifted actors feel performing opposite such a painfully obvious novice?)
Underwood was not the theatrical production's only problem, however. Certain scenes were awkward. You can't put an adult actor (Michael Campayno) in a pair of shorts and make him look seventeen! (“I am sixteen going on...thirty.”) You can't have Reverend Mother (Audra McDonald) belting out the inspirational “Climb Every Mountain” while Underwood stands by, emotion-less. You can't have Maria giving sage counsel to Liesl when Liesl looks older and wiser, and you can't have Maria and Captain von Trapp (Stephen Moyer) pledging their love to one another when there's as much chemistry between them as Simon Cowell and...well...anybody.
NBC's The Sound of Music wasn't all bad; it had its moments. Stephen Moyer's performance of “Edelweiss”, Laura Benanti as Elsa (Benanti would have been a far better choice for Maria), and the ever-gifted Christian Borle as Max were standouts. But that's about it. I wanted to like Carrie Underwood as Maria - I really did – but I couldn't help thinking the show was quite like a handsomely staged high school production with the school's most popular cheerleader in the lead role. In fairness to Underwood, she isn't the first performer to fall flat in her acting debut. Remember Jessica Lange in the 1976 release of King Kong? If serious about crossing over into acting, Underwood should take her cue from Lange and work hard at the craft before stepping back on stage.