My mother is far more forgiving than I am when it comes to bad television, and she insisted that I watch the Carrie Underwood version of The Sound of Music. And despite all reviews suggesting I maybe shouldn’t, I caved because moms know best. Except mine didn’t, and I spent most of the movie stacking it up, mostly unfavorably, against every other version I had seen, including an international stage production, the 2015 ITV remake, and of course the untouchable film classic.
The 1965 film remains my favorite movie of all time, but I don’t think it’s precious and should be immune from updates. This is not a good one, however, despite some of the best voices American musical theater has on offer. I’m talking about Laura Benanti, Christian Borle, Audra McDonald, and, just because, Audra McDonald again. You can’t pull off this kind of production on network TV with just a few Broadway stars though; you need a real star. Enter Carrie Underwood – country music diva, multiple Grammy winner, American sweetheart.
She, no surprise, sings like an idol but also acts like the star of your local theater, which turns out to be an odd combination for a character like Maria. What I love about better interpretations, namely that of Julie Andrews and Kara Tointon, who starred in the ITV production, is the underlying strength and wisdom that shines through Maria’s occasional naiveté. She may not be worldly or sophisticated, but she understands human nature. She knows when the kids are having a go and stands firm when the Captain is unfairly dressing her down.
Underwood, however, comes across as someone who’s more clueless, a chirpy, idealistic young woman determined to be positive and make positive changes. Basically, an American. She barges through by sheer force of personality, scandalizing everyone who gets in her way. There’s no nuance in her performance; either she’s parroting her lines with the earnestness of an insecure actor or she’s overpowering the fragile, confined set with her buxom voice.
The superior musical theater acting from Underwood’s costars only emphasizes her deficiencies. I never liked the Mother Abbess character – so unsingable and a bit of a relic – but found myself clinging to McDonald’s performance. She gives the mother an authority that comes from character and not just age. Borle camps it up as Max, the Captain’s self-interested friend. I always find something potentially sinister about Borle’s characters. It’s not a moustache twirling evil but a look that says he will double cross you in an instant if it will save his skin. He’s a perfect foil for Benanti’s tantalizing Baroness. This being a remake of the original stage production and not the film, the two abide by a slippery moral code that prefers Nazi occupation to open hostility and confrontation.
Underwood’s main costar, Stephen Moyer, fares less well. He makes an adequate Captain, stern when he must be, gentle at other times. But whereas Underwood is too forceful, Moyer struggles to create any lasting impression. The lack of chemistry between these leads also pushes the love story into the background, which is where you should file this production.
Dir: Rob Ashford, Beth McCarthy-Miller
Writer: Russel Crouse (book), Howard Lindsay (book), Austin Winsberg
Cast: Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer, Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, Ariane Rinehart, Michael Campayno, Sean Cullen, Kristine Nielsen
Time: 135 min
Country: United States